It’s a Day in the Sun for Pioneering Black Composer Florence Price
In July 1936, composer, pianist, organist and pedagogue Florence B. Price was profiled again in the Chicago Defender. Since 1918, her affiliations and accomplishments had attracted the attention of publication, an attention which increased with her professional accomplishments in Chicago, earning her the nickname “the oldest black composer of the Midwest”. The profile featured standard biographical information, career details, and Price’s answer to the question, “Has his current success brought him great satisfaction?” » :
I feel deeply grateful for the progress, but the satisfaction – no, not the satisfaction. I am never completely satisfied with what I write. I don’t think creators are ever satisfied enough with their work. You see, there is always an ideal towards which we strive, and ideals, as you know, are elusive. Being of spiritual essence, they escape our human hands, but lead us, and I trust, upwards, in a search which ends, I believe, only at the feet of God, the only Creator and source of all inspiration.
Price’s statement reflects his pragmatism, gentle self-criticism, and modest aspirations about his creative process and the push and pull of developing musical ideas. It was a conscientious practice of careful study and subtle innovation in style that incorporated African-American folk idioms into classical Western forms. Price’s aesthetic ties her to the syncretic roots of American composition, and her career has made her a central figure in the classical Black Renaissance arena of Chicago. By his untimely death in 1953, Price had composed over 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 public acclaim have not also translated into continued support, programmatically or financially. Price was likely unhappy with her professional accomplishments in the mainstream, constantly navigating the racist, sexist, and utterly exclusive classical music networks. But what she accomplished was no small feat or lesser impact: defining a major period in American and Black American composition; inspire and mentor others; and inclusion in the canon of black classical music alongside his 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, dentist (and writer, historian, and painter) and Florence Irene Gulliver, music teacher (and real estate owner), Price came of age during the twilight of Reconstruction and the early stages of discrimination and disenfranchisement under Jim Crow. Little Rock was an ideal town for middle- and upper-class black Americans during this time, but segregation was still a reality. Price graduated from all-black high school and studied at the New England Conservatory of Music (NEC) in Boston from 1903 to 1906. NEC was not only one of the few music conservatories to admit black students, it was also located in the middle of the best classics. personalities, ensembles and musical networks of the United States of the early 20th century.
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. After graduating, she worked as a faculty member at Arkadelphia Academy and Shorter College in Arkansas until 1910, when she moved to Atlanta, Georgia to become dean of the Clark University at the Atlanta Music Department until 1912. That year she married a civil rights attorney. Thomas J. Price and moved to Little Rock. There she had three children, raised two daughters – Florence and Edith – after losing her son, and sought a stable and supportive musical community.
In 1920, she was a registered member of the new National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM). She founded the Little Rock Club of Musicians several years later, probably around the time her application to the Arkansas Music Teachers Association was denied due to 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, soon joined by her husband. The quick relocation proved to save her daughter’s life, helped Price out of an abusive marriage in 1931, and reinvigorated her career aspirations.
Joining two of the Chicago branches of NANM, Price became a central part of the Black Chicago classical music network, and in 1932 she submitted her Symphony in E Minor (1931) to the NANM co-sponsored Wanamaker competition. He won first prize in the symphonic category. The Symphony in E Minor was premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933 as part of the Century of Progress program at the World’s Fair. In June 1934 Price premiered his Piano Concerto in One Movement as a soloist with the Chicago Musical College Orchestra. In August, she took part in two more performances of the work: one in Pittsburgh as soloist and Margaret Bonds on the piano reduction, and another as conductor of the concert series “O Sing a New Song,” 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.
One of his most popular art songs, “Song to the Dark Virgin”, was published in 1941 by G. Schirmer, thanks in large part to the championing work of Price’s colleague and collaborator, Marian Anderson. Anderson also recorded and performed Price’s arrangement of the witty “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord”, selecting the work to close his legendary Lincoln Memorial concert in 1939. In addition to his classical works, Price composed popular songs under the pen name “VeeJay”. .” She also expanded her network by 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 its Symphony No. 3 in C minor. Like his first symphony, Price drew on African-American folk idioms and expanded his stylistic palette to include jazz progressions, tango rhythms and instrumentation, and more adventurous orchestration. His use of juba dance – a form of dance-music of African origin from the time of slavery – for the third movements of his symphonies, quartets and quintets, reflects an engagement with standard practice for a modern purpose: formalize an African-American concert tradition.
By the early 1950s, Price was composing as much, if not more, than 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 problem postponed the trip. By 1953, the trip had expanded into a multi-city adventure with stops in France and England, until Price went to hospital and died 10 days later.
Just as Florence Price was less than happy with how her professional career was going, it’s not hard to be less than happy that she didn’t have more time. But in the time she had, she contributed to nearly every classical genre besides opera, and composed and helped define one of the most exuberant periods in American songwriting and black culture. She remains a major musical figure in the music departments of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and brings her back from the mainstream of classical music.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra played a leading role in this mainstream resurgence by programming and recording Price’s symphonic repertoire. They join Marian Anderson, Price Rae researcher Linda Brown, black classical artists, HBCU music teachers and students, and many others in the vital mission of keeping Price’s music on stage for decades to come.
A. Kori Hill is a Cincinnati-based music historian with a Ph.D. candidate at the University of the North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research focuses on Florence Price, networks of black composers and 20th century Noir modernist culture.