Composers of Color, part III: Florence Price
Florence Price (1887-1953)
In 2009 a couple was renovating a ramshackle house in St. Anne, Illinois, and uncovered 30 boxes of personal documents. It turned out that this home used to be the summer residence of Florence Price. Among the findings were manuscripts of two violin concertos and a symphony (her 4th and last). The discovery illuminates the tremendous resistance faced by women of color in the 20th century. These pieces had never been played. As we shall see there was only one conductor who ever gave her the time of day to be heard on the large stage.
Born into a middle class family in Little Rock, Arkansas, Florence showed promise at an early age when her mother gave her music lessons. No one in the community was willing to take her on because of her race. At age 4 she gave her first piano performance and at 11 her first composition was published. After graduating with honors at New England Conservatory, she embarked on a teaching career back home and then went to Clark University (Atlanta) as head of the music department. In 1912 she was back in Little Rock for a dozen years before racial tensions and lynchings finally forced her family to move to Chicago.This major metropolis became her permanent home and her work began to flourish.
Here is Meditation from 1929.
With her first symphony, Price won first prize in the Wanamaker Foundation Awards in 1932. Thanks to conductor Frederick Stock, the work was performed by the Chicago Symphony in June of 1933. It was the first time a woman of color had a composition played by a major symphony orchestra. Here is the finale.
Her music reflects the traditions of western music, her southern roots and religious background. Listen to the third movement of the recently discovered 4th Symphony. It is titled Juba, a slave dance with hand clapping, knee & thigh slapping rhythms. A middle section features gentler underlying rhythms against the poignant spiritual lines of the English horn and then clarinet.
Other works were played by lesser known orchestras in Chicago and Detroit. Her repertory is filled with chamber music, organ anthems, piano pieces, art songs and spiritual arrangements. There is still much to be heard and played some 60+ years after her death. In November 2018, G. Schirmer publishing company announced it had obtained exclusive rights to Florence Price’s entire music catalogue. Now that is progress!
Explore the list of online Salons.