1888 was not an auspicious year for a black girl to be born in the United States. The Federal government had ignominiously turned tail on Reconstruction just twelve years before, abandoning the black population of the South to whatever indignities that section of the country cared to inflict on people who had known barely a decade of shambling semi-freedom. A girl born in that year had little to look forward to but black codes, the resurgent KKK, Jim Crow, segregation, and the death of anybody attempting to clear a path out of the dehumanizing social architectures of the Deep South.
And yet it was in this year, in the equally unpromising city of Little Rock, that a girl named Florence Smith was born to a dentist/painter/inventor father and soprano/pianist mother who was destined to marry classical music with the dance rhythms and spiritual melodies of her people’s long suffering culture to create something new that defined the ground rules and theoretical assumptions for all who followed. Perhaps Florence Smith (who would become Florence Price upon marrying attorney Thomas Price) straddled two musical worlds so well because of her upbringing of stark contrasts. Shortly after her birth, her family moved to Chicago where she attended elementary school while learning piano from her mother. We don’t know much of these years, but her performance must have been exemplary, for she was attending high school (in Little Rock) at an age when most are gearing up for middle school, and graduated from that high school by age fourteen.
From North to South, then back to North as her astounding progress as both a student and performer of music landed her a spot at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music, where she double majored in piano and organ while embarking on the first of what would be over three hundred compositions. Her first two works were a string trio and a symphony. That second choice is of particular significance. While previous women composers concentrated on vocal music or small chamber forms with the occasional concerto thrown in when the composer happened also to be a gifted soloist, the symphony remained a form almost entirely dominated by male composers. For a woman to choose that form in the early 20th Century was to make a bold statement, but for that woman to be not yet twenty years of age was an act of supreme confidence in herself and the power of her craft.
Graduating with honors at age nineteen, she returned to the South and a string of unsettled teaching positions, first at Cotton Plant – Arkadelphia Academy (1906-07), then a stint at Shorter College for three years, and finally two years at Clark College where she was head of the music department. After her marriage in 1912 she divided her time between music teaching and raising her first son, Tommy, whose early death prompted her to set Julia Johnson Davis’s poem To My Little Son to music as a way to work through her grief. Besides such personal tragedy, Price also had to weather the institutional racism of Arkansas society. In spite of her record as a composer and educator she was denied membership in the Arkansas Music Teachers Association solely on account of her race.
In 1927, after a black man accused of assaulting a white woman was lynched and hung on a street corner in one of Little Rock’s more prosperous black neighborhoods, the Prices made the decision to relocate to Chicago. Here were wider opportunities to study, perform, and, crucially, to publish. Her first opus came in 1928 with a collection of four piano pieces. She took further lessons in composition from the likes of Carl Busch and Arthur Olaf Andersen while earning extra money playing organ for silent film showings. Those first years were lean ones financially, and for at least some time she was compelled to live with her sons at the home of Estella Bonds, a lynchpin of Chicago culture who introduced Price to the poet Langston Hughes, whose work she would famously set to music a short decade later.
As the United States slid into the ghastly throb of the Great Depression in the 1930s, Price paradoxically began scoring the string of public triumphs that would make her one of her time’s musical touchstones. In 1932 she won the Wanamake Award for her First Symphony (in E minor), which brought with it not only a handsome and much needed $500 check, but a performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Frederick Stock at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. Price was thereby the first black woman to ever have a symphonic piece performed by a major orchestra. The broadcast of that piece brought her to the attention of other orchestras, and the ensuing years saw performances of her piano concerti as well as a memorable performance by Marian Anderson of her arrangement of the spiritual My Soul’s Been Anchored in de Lord.
In 1940, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt heard a rehearsal of her work and declared, “Florence Price, one of the few women to write symphonic music… has certainly made a beautiful contribution.” The following year saw the publication of arguably her most famous piece, a setting of the Langston Hughes poem Songs to the Dark Virgin, hailed by the Chicago Daily News as, “one of the greatest immediate successes ever won by an American song.”
Listening to Price’s work (or at least the small subset of it which has been published and recorded), it’s easy to understand the enthusiasm her age felt for her compositions. Already in the first symphony there is that particular mix of spiritual melody and Juba dance forms seamlessly melded into the orchestral forms that recall the symphonic gestures of Antonin Dvorak. We have, through decades of evocative Ken Burns documentary soundtracks, grown used to much of this soundscape, but to the 1930s Price’s music offered a vibrant path forward for a classical music that many believed was bogging itself down in mathematical abstractions that fired the mind but deadened the heart. Tone poems like The Oak harnessed harmony to tell musical stories while the songs for which she earned so much renown reached into deep historic pains and hopes for their words, and clothed them in shifting rhythms and arresting modulations.
In spite of her growing fame, and several high profile performances by the likes of Marian Anderson, Blanche Thebom, and Leontyne Price, most of her work remained unpublished during her life. Nevertheless, she continued writing and teaching even as the political atmosphere of the 1940s devolved to the bitter disappointments of the early 1950s and her own health began to filter. Slipping into a long illness, she died in 1953, her work to be carried on by a new generation raised on her example, including Margaret Bonds, Julia Perry, and Evelyn Pittman. Her work had opened the door, and they would, with their very different gifts, ensure it stayed that way.
FURTHER READING: In spite of her historically important position, Price is a difficult figure to track down in the historical record. The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers gives her a few columns, but for anything more you’ll have to look not in a stand-alone biography of Price (there isn’t one) but rather in collections devoted to profiling the history of black women in classical music, the reigning chronicler of which was Mildred Denby Green, whose Black Women Composers: a Genesis (1983) remains a crucial source. Helen Walker-Hill’s From Spirituals to Symphonies (2007), meanwhile, is an easier to come across volume that has the benefit of still being in print.
Lead image: University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville/Florence Price Papers
FURTHER LISTENING: Florence Price’s music is seldom performed by first tier recording artists in the modern age so finding recordings that do full justice to the material is difficult. So, we’re going to go back to the archives, to the performers whose lives overlapped with her own. The audio might not be as crisp, but these were some of the greats of their day. Here, for example, is the legendary Leontyne Price performing My Soul’s Been Anchored in de Lord:
While here is the equally legendary Marian Anderson performing the same piece by way of comparison:
Moving to the modern era, the great baritone Thomas Hampson recorded two of her songs on a disc that celebrated the music of Chicago, including her famous Songs to the Dark Virgin:
Her symphonic tone poem The Oak was recently beautifully performed here in Oakland by the Prometheus Orchestra as part of its commitment to performing music by women composers. That one is not available however, so here is another by the Women’s Philharmonia Orchestra:
Get to know more Women In Music, in Dale’s dedicated column.