Florence Price

Her Day in the Sun

Posted by:  A. Kori Hill on January 05, 2022

In July 1936 composer, pianist, organist, and pedagogue Florence B. Price was once again the focus of a profile in the Chicago Defender. Since 1918 her affiliations and accomplishments had garnered the publication’s attention, attention that increased with her professional achievements in Chicago, earning her the moniker “Dean of Negro Composers of the Middle West.” The profile featured standard biographical information, career details, and Price’s response to the question, had “her current success brought great satisfaction?”:

"I feel deeply thankful for progress but satisfaction—no, not satisfaction. I am never quite satisfied with what I write. I don’t think creators ever are quite satisfied with their work. You see there is always an ideal toward which we strive, and ideals, as you know, are elusive. Being of spiritual essence they escape our human hands, but lead us on, and I trust, upward, in a search that ends, I believe, only at the feet of God, the One Creator, and source of all inspiration."

Price’s statement reflects her pragmaticism, gentle self-criticism, and modest aspiration on her creative process and the push and pull of developing musical ideas. Hers was a conscientious practice of close study and subtle innovation in a style that incorporated African-American folk idioms in Western classical forms. Price’s aesthetic ties her to the syncretic roots of American composition and her career made her a central figure in the classical arena of the Black Chicago Renaissance. By her untimely death in 1953, Price had composed 300+ works, some of which had been championed by figures such as Marian Anderson, published by G. Schirmer, and premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. These moments of mainstream acclaim did not also translate into consistent support, programmatically or financially. Price was likely not satisfied with her professional accomplishments in the mainstream, constantly navigating the racist, sexist, and altogether exclusive networks of classical music performance. But what she did accomplish was no small feat or lesser in impact: defining a major period of American and Black-American composition; inspiring and mentoring others; and inclusion in the Black classical music canon alongside her colleagues and contemporaries William Grant Still, Harry T. Burleigh, R. Nathaniel Dett, and Margaret Bonds.

Florence B. Price was born Florence Beatrice Smith in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1887. The youngest child of Dr. James Smith, a dentist (and writer, historian, and painter) and Florence Irene Gulliver, a music educator (and real estate proprietor), Price came of age in the twilight of Reconstruction and in the early stages of discrimination and disenfranchisement under Jim Crow. Little Rock was an ideal city for middle-and-upper class Black Americans during this period, but segregation was still a reality. Price graduated from the all-Black high school and studied at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music (NEC) from 1903 to 1906. NEC was not only one of the few music conservatories that admitted Black students, it was also located amidst the highest pedigreed classical music figures, ensembles, and networks of the early-20th-century United States.

Florence Price (second row, third from right) in her New England Conservatory class photo from 1906. Photo: New England Conservatory Archive

While pursuing a degree in organ performance and a diploma in piano pedagogy, Price also studied composition with NEC founder and director George Whitefield Chadwick and counterpoint with Frederick Converse. Following graduation, she worked as a faculty member at Arkadelphia Academy and Shorter College in Arkansas until 1910, when she relocated to Atlanta, Georgia, to serve as dean of Clark University at Atlanta’s music department until 1912. That year, she married civil rights attorney Thomas J. Price and moved home to Little Rock. There she had three children, raised two daughters—Florence and Edith—after losing her son, and searched for a stable and supportive musical community.

By 1920 she was a registered member of the newly established National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM). She founded the Little Rock Club of Musicians several years later, likely around the time her application to the Arkansas Music Teachers Association was denied because of her race. As Jim Crow laws became more entrenched, racial violence and terrorism followed. Following the lynching of a middle-class Black man, Price’s eldest daughter, Florence, became the target of a White mob. Price took her daughters and fled to Chicago in 1927, joined soon by her husband. The swift relocation proved to save the life of her daughter, aided Price’s extraction from an abusive marriage in 1931, and re-invigorated her career aspirations.

Joining two of NANM’s Chicago branches, Price became a core part of Black Chicago’s classical music network, and in 1932 she submitted her Symphony in E minor (1931) to the NANM co-sponsored Wanamaker Competition. It won first prize in the symphonic category. The Symphony in E minor was premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933 on the Century of Progress program at the World’s Fair. In June 1934 Price premiered her Piano Concerto in One Movement as soloist with the Chicago Musical College’s orchestra. In August she participated in two more performances of the work: one in Pittsburgh as the soloist and Margaret Bonds on the piano reduction, and another as conductor on the “O Sing a New Song” concert series, another Chicago World’s Fair event celebrating Black music history and culture. The work was performed with Bonds as soloist and the Woman’s Symphony of Chicago in October.

The first page of the manuscript score of Florence Price’s arrangement of the spiritual “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord.”

One of her most popular art songs, “Song to the Dark Virgin,” was published in 1941 by G. Schirmer, thanks in no small part to the championing work of Price’s colleague and collaborator Marian Anderson. Anderson also recorded and performed Price’s arrangement of the spiritual “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord,” selecting the work to close her legendary Lincoln Memorial concert in 1939. In addition to her classical works, Price composed popular songs under the pen name “VeeJay.” She also expanded her network, joining the Musicians Club of Chicago and the Chicago Club of Women Organists, becoming the first Black member of each music club.

In 1940 the Detroit Symphony Orchestra premiered her Symphony No. 3 in C minor. Like her First Symphony, Price drew upon African-American folk idioms and expanded her stylistic pallet to include jazz progressions, tango rhythms and instrumentation, and more adventurous orchestration. Her use of juba dance—an enslavement era music-dance form of African origin—for the third movements of her symphonies, quartets, and quintets, reflects an engagement with standard practice for a modern purpose: formalizing an African-American concert tradition.

The early 1950s saw Price composing as much, if not more, than she had in previous decades. She was determined to reinvigorate her critical success of the 1930s. In 1951 she had planned a trip to England to hear the premiere of her concert overture commissioned by the Hallé Orchestra, but a health scare postponed the trip. By 1953 the trip had expanded to a multi-city adventure with stops in France and England, until Price checked into a hospital and 10 days later passed away.

The Philadelphia Orchestra's recording of Price's First and Third symphonies was nominated for a GRAMMY Award. Credit: Deutsche Grammophon

Just as Florence Price was less than satisfied with the progress of her professional career, it is not hard to be less than satisfied that she did not have more time. But with the time she did have, she contributed to nearly every classical genre besides opera and composed and helped define one of the most exuberant periods of American composition and Black culture. She remains a major musical figure in music departments of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and is once again getting her just due from the classical music mainstream.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin and The Philadelphia Orchestra are playing a leading role in this mainstream resurgence through programming and recording Price’s symphonic repertoire. They join Marian Anderson, Price scholar Rae Linda Brown, Black classical artists, HBCU music teachers and students, and many others in the essential mission to keep Price’s music on the stage for decades to come.

A. Kori Hill is a Cincinnati-based music historian and Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research focus spans Florence Price, Black composer networks, and 20th-century Black modernist culture.

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