Price, Florence B. 1887–1953
Florence B. Price 1887–1953
Florence B. Price was the first African-American woman to become famous as a composer of orchestral music. Beginning her career at a time when it was unheard-of for blacks to study classical composition, she became one of the founders of a tradition of African-American music in the twentieth-century classical arena. Her more than 300 completed works included symphonies and other orchestral works, choral pieces (some of them arrangements of spirituals), songs, piano and organ works, and music for small ensembles. Orchestras in several major American cities and even abroad performed Price’s crowd-pleasing works.
Price was born Florence Beatrice Smith in Little Rock, Arkansas, on April 9, 1887. Her father, James, the son of free blacks from Delaware, was a dentist, and her mother, Florence, had taught music in Indianapolis before her marriage. Young Florence Smith and her brother and sister all took music lessons from their mother, and Florence emerged as the prodigy of the group. She gave her first performance on the piano at age four, and she attended the same elementary school as another black classical pioneer, William Grant Still; one of their teachers had dreamed of becoming a composer but had been frustrated in her efforts to find the money for a musical education. Before she was named valedictorian of her segregated high school in Little Rock, Price had published her first compositions.
Enrolling at the New England Conservatory of Music, Price studied piano and organ with the aim of becoming a music teacher. But she also sought out lessons from the school’s composition faculty, which included some of the leading composers of the day. One of them, George Whitefield Chadwick, had taken to heart the advice of Czech composer Antonin Dvorak that African-American materials might form the basis for a distinctively American musical style, and he is thought to have encouraged Price to incorporate black folk styles into her music. Her compositions from her student years included a string quartet and a symphony. Price graduated from the New England Conservatory in 1906.
She taught keyboards at the Cotton Plant-Arkadelphia Academy and at North Little Rock’s Shorter College for four years, continuing to compose when she had the time. Some of her songs caught the attention of white Memphis composer Neumon Leighton, who encouraged her by assigning them to his voice students. She then moved to Atlanta to head the music department at Clark University. In 1912 she married lawyer Thomas J. Price. Price raised two children, and for several years giving private lessons occupied most of her musical energy. But she continued writing songs, one of which commemorated her stillborn son, and in the 1920s several of them won contest awards. The family fled the increasing violence of southern apartheid for Chicago in 1927.
That city offered Price the opportunity to follow her dreams as a composer. She immediately enrolled at several local educational institutions, among them the American Conservatory of Music and the Chicago Musical College, and she made contact with and learned from both white classical composers such as
Born on April 9, 1887, in Little Rock; AR; died on June 3,1953, in Chicago, IL; daughter of James (a dentist) and Florence (a music teacher) Smith; married Thomas J. Price, a lawyer, 1912; two children. Education: Graduated from New England Conservatory of Music, 1906; further study in composition with George Whitefield Chadwick; studied at Chicago Musical College and American Conservatory of Music, mid-1920s.
Career: Performed in public on piano at age four; taught music at Cotton Plant-Arkadelphia Academy, 1906-07; taught at Shorter College, Little Rock, 1907-10; head of music department, Clark College, Atlanta, GA, 1910-12; Symphony in E minor premiered by Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 1933; taught piano and composition privately in Chicago; Symphony No. 3 in C minor premiered, 1940; Songs to the Dark Virgin, song cycle, published 1941.
Memberships: American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP).
Selected awards: Four Wanamaker Prizes (first prize for Symphony in E minor), 1932.
Leo Sowerby, and leading black figures such as the popular composer Will Marion Cook and the prominent arranger of spirituals William Dawson. With her marriage going sour, Price had to struggle to make ends meet; at one point the middle-aged Price moved in with her student Margaret Bonds, who later became a noted pianist and composer. Writing music for radio commericals and accompanying silent films on the organ brought in some extra cash.
Things began to improve after several of Price’s short piano pieces were published, and in 1932 she made her breakthrough with four prizes in the prestigious Wanamaker Prize competition. The Chicago Symphony under conductor Frederick Stock performed Price’s Symphony in E minor the following year at the Chicago World’s Fair—the first time a symphony by a black woman had been performed by a major orchestra. Price herself performed her Piano Concerto in D minor in 1934 with the Chicago Women’s Symphony, and over the next decade various works by Price appeared on the programs of orchestras around the Midwest. She wrote four symphonies in all, but no copy of the second is known to have survived. Price’s large body of choral music, some of which was intended for choruses that performed on Chicago radio station WGN, is little known today.
Price’s style, wrote Eileen Southern in The Music of Black Americans, “is best defined as neoromantic, which was rather conservative for her time. She was also a black nationalist in that she drew freely upon folk idioms in her compositions.” Unlike other black composers of the day, Price rarely quoted spirituals or other existing melodies from the African-American tradition in her work—although her 1929 Fantasie Nègre was based on the spiritual “Sinner, Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass.” Instead, as Price herself wrote on occasion, she strove toward a more general African-American sound; many of her works use pre-jazz dance rhythms (such as the “juba” rhythm of slave secular music), and she sometimes used such characteristically African-American techniques as call and response.
It was not until the 1970s and 1980s brought widespread rediscovery of classical works by women and by earlier black composers that Price’s music was recorded and gained widespread repeat performances. By 2002 over 20 of Price’s works had been recorded. At one point during her own lifetime, however, Price did gain her proverbial 15 minutes of fame—when pioneering African-American soprano Marian Anderson performed her setting of Langston Hughes’s Songs to the Dark Virgin, the Chicago Daily News (as quoted in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians) opined that the work was “one of the greatest immediate successes ever won by an American song.”
Anderson’s performance led to publication of the Hughes setting in 1941, which in turn inspired further performances of Price’s songs by such leading vocalists as Leontyne Price, Roland Hayes, and William Warf-ield. That stimulated a new round of interest from music publishers in Price’s music, especially her art songs. Price was inducted into the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers in 1940; her membership was sponsored by composer John Alden Carpenter. Further recognition of her talent came from abroad; the durable British orchestral conductor Sir John Barbirolli commissioned a suite for strings from Price, and it was premiered under his baton in Manchester, England. Price continued to compose and perform until her death in Chicago on June 3, 1953, from a stroke.
At the Cotton Gin, for piano, 1928.
Symphony in E minor, 1932.
Sonata in E minor, for piano, 1932.
Piano Concerto in F minor, 1934.
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, 1940.
Songs to the Dark Virgin, song cycle, texts by Langston Hughes, pub. 1941.
Sadie, Stanley, ed., The New Grove Dictionary}; of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., Macmillan, 2001.
Slonimsky, Nicolas, ed. emeritus, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, centennial ed., Schirmer, 2001.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed., Notable Black American Women, Gale, 1992.
Southern, Eileen, The Music of Black Americans, 3rd ed., Norton, 1997.
—James M. Manheim
Price, Florence Beatrice
Florence Beatrice Price
Florence B. Price (1887–1953) was the first African-American woman in history to have a symphony she composed performed by a major orchestra. Price wrote works in genres ranging from orchestral music to radio commercials, and her music, widely heard in its day, has been rediscovered as researchers have delved into the early days of classical music composed by African Americans.
In spite of a difficult life that involved a flight from the violence of Southern segregation and on-and-off periods of sparse financial resources, Price was a prolific composer. She wrote more than 300 works, and her fame extended to many American cities and even to England. Sometimes characterized as a musical conservative, Price wrote crowd-pleasing romantic works that drew on the musical language of the late nineteenth century. She also incorporated specifically African-American traits into her compositions—not, as was sometimes done at the time, by quoting the melodies of African-American spirituals, but by organizing her music in line with the importance of rhythm in African-based musical traditions.
Born to Dentist and Music Teacher
Born Florence Beatrice Smith in Little Rock, Arkansas, on April 9, 1887, Price was the daughter of James Smith, a prominent Little Rock dentist who had been born to free blacks in Delaware. He was also a painter whose work was exhibited at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Her mother, also named Florence, was a music teacher from Indianapolis. Classical music was valued in the household, and all three Smith children took piano lessons from their mother. The standout from the beginning was Price, who gave a recital at age four. Price attended elementary school in Little Rock and had another future American symphonic great, William Grant Still, as a classmate. Both students were influenced and inspired by one of the area's legendary African-American educators, Charlotte Andrews Stephens, who had herself dreamed of becoming a composer but was stymied by financial problems. Price graduated in 1903 from Capitol High School in Little Rock; she was valedictorian of her class.
Price had already published a few compositions by that time, and she was admitted to the New England Conservatory of Music. At her mother's urging, Price tried, apparently successfully, to "pass" as Mexican; she listed her home-town as Puebla, Mexico, and as late as 1906 a conservatory yearbook still gave that city as her family's residence. Segregation in New England was much less severe, however, and Price met other African-American students who were enrolled at the conservatory. Studying piano and organ, Price aimed toward a career as a music teacher. But she also took composition lessons from members of the school's faculty, which included some of the top composers in the United States. One of them, George Whitefield Chadwick, was a follower of nationalist styles and urged Price to incorporate African-American materials into her music; despite the rampant prejudice of the day, many musical observers believed that African-American spirituals could form the basis for a distinctively American school of classical music. Price found time to write several major compositions during her student years, even as she traveled as far as Nantucket Island to make extra money by playing at church services. She graduated in 1906 with teaching certificates in piano and organ, and returned to Arkansas to teach at Shorter College in North Little Rock.
Even in the midst of the South's segregated educational system, Price's music attracted notice; the white Memphis composer and educator Neumon Leighton heard some of her songs and assigned them to voice students. She moved to Atlanta in 1910 to head the music department at Clark University there, returning to Little Rock in 1912 to marry lawyer Thomas J. Price. For several years her musical activities were confined to giving lessons in a private studio. Price's daughter Florence Louise was born in 1917, and another daughter, Edith, followed in 1921. From time to time she mailed off compositions to musical competitions sponsored by magazines, and in 1925 and 1927 she took second prize in an Opportunity magazine contest. Most of her pieces at this point were songs; one of them was written in memory of a third child, a son who was stillborn.
Shocked by a terrorist attack—a lynching—in their neighborhood, Price and her family moved to Chicago, Illinois, in 1927. With both her children now in school, Price jumped at the opportunity to broaden her musical education. She took classes at a variety of educational institutions, including the Chicago Musical College, American Conservatory of Music, Chicago Teachers College, Central YMCA College, Lewis Institute, and the University of Chicago. Price financed her musical activities partly by accompanying silent films on the organ. She faced dire financial straits off and on, and at one point she moved in with one of her piano students, Margaret Bonds, who later became a noted composer herself.
Welcomed Broken Foot
In spite of these problems, Price found the musical atmosphere in Chicago stimulating. She met other African Americans interested in classical music, including William Dawson, a composer who later taught at the Tuskegee Institute and became a prolific arranger of spirituals. Price's studies and musical interactions began to bear fruit around 1928, when the G. Schirmer and McKinley publishing companies began to issue her songs, piano music, and especially her instructional pieces for piano. Price also applied her newfound musical knowledge to the composition of works larger than piano pieces and songs. When she could, she worked on a symphony. Early in 1931 she wrote to a friend (as quoted in an article by Barbara Garvey Jackson in Black Perspective in Music), "I found it possible to snatch a few precious days in the month of January in which to write undisturbed. But oh, dear me, when shall I ever be so fortunate again as to break a foot?."
The work made possible by the broken foot was Price's Symphony No. 1 in E minor, which she entered in the annual Wanamaker music competition for 1932. It took the top honor, the Wanamaker Prize, bringing Price a much-needed cash award of $500. Price also won several other smaller prizes in the same competition that year, and her student Margaret Bonds also took a prize for her song "The Sea Ghost." As a result of the prize for Price's symphony, the work crossed the desk of Chicago Symphony Orchestra conductor Frederick Stock, who put the work on the program for a concert held at the Century of Progress fair in 1933. That concert marked the first time a major orchestra had performed a symphony by a black, woman composer.
Price experienced another success the following year with her Piano Concerto in One Movement, which she performed as a soloist with the Chicago Woman's Symphony Orchestra. A reviewer in the Chicago Herald and Examiner (quoted in American Music by Rae Linda Brown) termed it "the most successful effort to date to lift the native folk-song idiom of the Negro to artistic levels." The work used the rhythm of the slave "juba" dance, which involved body percussion, and it became one of Price's most popular pieces.
The rhythmic approach of the piano concerto was typical of Price's attitude toward African-American folk or vernacular musical materials. Jackson quoted Price, who wrote in a set of program notes for her Symphony in E minor, "It is intended to be Negroid in character and expression. In it no attempt, however, has been made to project Negro music solely in the purely traditional manner. None of the themes are adaptations or derivations of folk songs." Instead, Price focused on rhythm. In program notes for a performance of a set of piano pieces, she wrote (quoted by Jackson) that "In all types of Negro music, rhythm is of preeminent importance. In the dance, it is a compelling, onward-sweeping force that tolerates no interruption…. All phases of truly Negro activity—whether work or play, singing or praying—are more than apt to take on a rhythmic quality." Some of Price's piano works used syncopation in a classical context in an unusual and distinctive way. A few of her works, such as the Mississippi River Suite, did quote spirituals.
Set Langston Hughes Text
Price's compositional reputation continued to spread in the late 1930s. She performed the Piano Concerto in One Movement with the Detroit Symphony, and she wrote other orchestral works that were performed in Chicago. The list of large ensembles that performed Price's works also included the Michigan WPA Symphony, the Brooklyn Symphony, the Bronx Symphony, the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Chicago Chamber Orchestra, the New York City Symphonic Band, and the U.S. Marine Band. Around 1940, pioneering operatic soprano Marian Anderson began singing Price's arrangement of the spiritual "My Soul's Been Anchored in the Lord." She then performed Price's original setting of the Langston Hughes poem cycle "Songs to a Dark Virgin," which a Chicago Daily News reviewer (quoted by Jackson) called "one of the greatest immediate successes ever won by an American song." The Hughes song cycle was published in 1941, and other leading black vocalists, among them Leontyne Price and Roland Hayes, began to sing Price's vocal music. Among her other admirers was composer John Alden Carpenter, who sponsored her for membership in the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Performers (ASCAP).
Price continued to write music through the 1940s and early 1950s, penning two concertos for violin and orchestra as well as three more symphonies, one of which has apparently been lost. She gained recognition as far away as England, where conductor John Barbirolli commissioned a Suite for Strings from Price and premiered it with the famed Hallé Orchestra in Manchester. Parts of Price's output were written for specific uses; she wrote music for choruses that performed on radio station WGN, and her organ music was heard in churches around Chicago. This music has been little studied even as other aspects of Price's catalog have been rediscovered. Price died in Chicago after suffering a stroke, on June 3, 1953.
The tuneful and rhythmically lively style of Price's music plainly pleased audiences at the time, but as ultramodern styles gained currency after her death, her music was eclipsed. In the 1970s scholarly investigations into music by African Americans and women brought a new appreciation of her accomplishments. Few recordings of her work appeared at first, but a disc of Price's orchestral works was recorded by the Bay Area Women's Philharmonic, and by 2002 some 20 of her pieces had been issued on CD. Given the positive reactions that audiences had to Price's music during her lifetime, her music now seemed a good bet for an ensemble hoping to make a name by reviving worthwhile but unknown music of the past.
Brown, Rae Linda, The Heart of a Woman, University of Illinois Press, forthcoming.
Contemporary Black Biography, vol. 37, Gale, 2003.
Southern, Eileen, Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians, Greenwood, 1982.
――――――, The Music of Black Americans, 3rd ed., Norton, 1997.
American Music, Summer 1993.
Black Perspective in Music, Spring 1977.
"Florence Beatrice Price (1887–1953)," AfriClassical.com, http://www.chevalierdesaintgeorges.homestead.com/Price.html (February 16, 2006).
"The Price Is Right," Ms. Magazine, August-September 2001, http://www.msmagazine.com.aug01/price.html (February 16, 2006).