Price, Florence B. (1888–1953)

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Price, Florence B. (1888–1953)

African-American composer and the first black woman to win fame as a symphonist. Born Florence Beatrice Smith on April 9, 1888, in Little Rock, Arkansas; died on June 3, 1953, in Chicago, Illinois; daughter of Florence Irene Smith (a schoolteacher) and James H. Smith (a dentist); married Thomas Price (an attorney); children: Tommy; Florence Louise; Edith.

Although Florence B. Price was born only two decades after the Civil War, her career reflects how much African-Americans achieved under difficult circumstances. She was born Florence Beatrice Smith in 1888 in Little Rock, Arkansas, into a solidly middle-class family, and grew up in cultured surroundings. Along with her brother Charles Smith and sister Gertrude Smith , she studied music with her mother Florence Irene Smith who had taught music in public school. Florence was four when she gave her first public performance. Her father James H. Smith, a dentist, had had a lucrative practice in Chicago before his marriage. When the Chicago fire of 1871 destroyed his office, James had returned to teaching in Arkansas. He was a musician like his wife, and the Smiths often joined other families in Little Rock who enjoyed music.

After Price graduated from high school, she attended the New England Conservatory of Music where she majored in piano and organ and studied music theory and composition. Her teacher, the renowned white composer George Whitefield Chadwick (1854–1931), used African-American musical idioms in his compositions, and he likely encouraged Florence to do the same. She had already published a composition at age 11, so the New England Conservatory was an ideal environment for her talents. When Price graduated in 1907, she began teaching at Arkadelphia Academy in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. Neumon Leighton, a white professor at Memphis State University, was very impressed with Price's art songs and lectured about her works to his students. Price was soon teaching music at Shorter College in North Little Rock before moving on to Clark College in Atlanta, where she taught from 1910 to 1912. Her teaching career ended with her marriage to Thomas Price, a Little Rock attorney, but her composing would continue.

The Prices had three children, although Tommy, the oldest, died in infancy. When discrimination coupled with a rash of racial lynchings became too much, the Prices moved from Arkansas to Chicago in 1927. Here, Florence began to move in a larger musical world. She studied with Arthur Olaf Anderson, Carl Busch, and Leo Sowerby and wrote radio commercials to earn extra money. Associating with other black artists and intellectuals was stimulating for Price. She became a mentor to a young composer, Margaret Bonds , who would also become successful. A photo taken in 1934 shows Price conducting the Women's Symphony of Chicago with Bonds at the piano. In 1940, Price was named a member of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers.

Price also began to publish her work in Chicago. G. Schirmer released "At the Cotton Gin," a piano piece, in 1928 and solicited more short teaching pieces from her. Marian Anderson used her setting of a Langston Hughes poem, "Songs to a Dark Virgin," which Schirmer published in 1941. Other artists who sang her songs included Carol Brice, Leontyne Price , Roland Hayes, Blanche Thebom, Etta Moten, Camilla Williams, Grace Bumbry , Todd Duncan, William Warfield, and Ellabelle Davis . In addition to shorter works, Price also composed her Symphony in A Minor and a piano sonata which won Wanamaker awards in 1930. Frederick Stock conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the first performance of the Symphony in 1933.

Price believed that black idioms were "rich resources for the creation of a body of uniquely American concert music." Speaking of her Symphony No. 3, she said, "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." Price lived and worked when America was a segregated country and during a period when African-Americans had no recognized civil rights. Even so, her enormous talent and perseverance gained her a place among the country's finest musicians.


Bailey, Ben E. "Florence B. Price" in Smith, Jessie Carney, ed., Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992, pp. 872–874.

Green, Mildred Denby. Black Women Composers: A Genesis. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1983.

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans. 2nd ed. NY: Norton, 1977.

John Haag , Athens, Georgia

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Price, Florence B. (1888–1953)

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