About Florence B. Price

Florence B. Price (1887-1953) achieved a level of renown that defied all expectations for an African American woman in her day.[1] Having studied at the New England Conservatory from 1903 to 1906, she pursued a career that included teaching at Shorter College (Little Rock) and heading the Music Department at Clark College (Atlanta). After moving to Chicago in 1927 to pursue a better, safer life than anything possible in the virulently racist U.S. South, she immersed herself that city’s bustling cultural and educational life, becoming actively involved with the National Association of Negro Musicians and studying music and a variety of subjects at American Conservatory, Chicago Teachers College, Central YMCA College, the Lewis Institute, and the University of Chicago.[2] Today she is celebrated as the first African American woman to have her music performed by a major U.S. orchestra (her First Symphony was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as part of the World’s Fair in 1933), but her fame spread far beyond than that, and lasted much longer. The following two decades witnessed performances of her music by at least nine other orchestras, as well as by some of the world’s greatest soloists and chamber players.  More than a decade after her death her reputation was still so great that the City of Chicago Public Schools named the Florence B. Price Elementary School after her in 1964. That school closed in 2012, but the same building still bears her name: the Florence B. Price Twenty-First Century Academy for Excellence.

And through it all, she composed. Florence Beatrice Price penned hundreds of compositions of astonishing richness and breadth which gave voice to a musical imagination that would not be stilled despite the limitations that her world would have imposed on her because of her race and her sex. Her reputation has been steadily broadening in recent decades thanks to dedicated and brilliant scholarly work by Rae Linda Brown, Marquese Carter, Samantha Ege, Barbara Garvey Jackson, Douglas Schadle, Bethany Jo Smith, Eileen Southern, and Helen Walker-Hill, among others.[3]

But if Price the composer never had to be rediscovered, the same could not be said of her music itself – simply because she published little of what she wrote. That began to change when her elder daughter, Florence Price Robinson (1917-75), donated a significant body of her music manuscripts and biographical materials to the University of Arkansas Libraries (Fayetteville), and the situation further improved with that library’s acquisition of a sizeable “addendum” in the late 1980s. Another major development was the discovery of a sizeable trove of music manuscripts and other documents in an abandoned house in St. Anne, Illinois, in 2009 – a recovery that eventually met with major media coverage. Florence Price, having already during her lifetime overcome the forcible marginalization and erasure that were her lot as an African American and a woman in a profoundly racist and sexist world, was now in a position to have her voice heard again.

 

[1] Although Price is mentioned in many texts that deal with African American composers and women in music, many of these sources repeat the same, rather basic information. Until recently, the most detailed and authoritative biography was the Introduction to the late Rae Linda Brown’s edition of Price’s First and Third Symphonies (“Lifting the Veil: The Symphonies of Florence B. Price,” in Florence Price: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3, ed. Rae Linda Brown and Wayne Shirley, Recent Researches in American Music, No. 66 [Middleton, Wisconsin: A-R Editions, 2008], xv-lii). The situation improved significantly in June 2020 with the publication of the first book-length life-and-works study (Rae Linda Brown, The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price, ed. Guthrie P. Ramsey, jr. [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2020]).

[2] Brown, “Lifting the Veil,” xxiv.

[3] See, for example, Barbara Garvey Jackson: “Florence Price, Composer,” The Black Perspective in Music 5 (1977), 30–43; Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans: A History (New York: W. W. Norton, 1971; 3rd ed., 1997); Rae Linda Brown, “Selected Orchestral Music of Florence B. Price (1888 [sic] – 1953) in the Context of Her Life and Work (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1987); Helen Walker-Hill, “Music by Black Women Composers at the American Music Research Center,” American Music Research Center Journal 2 (1992): 23-52; Calvert Johnson, “Florence Beatrice Price: Chicago Renaissance Woman,” The American Organist 34 (2000): 68-76; Scott David Farrah, “Signifyin(g): A Semiotic Analysis of Symphonic Works by William Grant Still, William Levi Dawson, and Florence B. Price” (Ph.D. diss, Florida State University, 2007); Bethany Jo Smith, “’Song to the Dark Virgin’: Race and Gender in Five Art Songs of Florence B. Price” (M.M. Thesis, College-Conservatory of Music, Cincinnatti, 2007); Marquese Carter, “The Poet and Her Songs: Analyzing the Art Songs of Florence B. Price” (D.M. diss., Indiana University, 2018); Samantha Ege, “Florence Price and the Politics of Her Existence,” The Kapralova Society Journal 16, no. 1 (Spring 2019): 1-10; Douglas Shadle, “Plus ça change: Florence B. Price In The #Blacklivesmatter Era,” NewMusicBox 20 February 2019, New Music USA, accessed 21 September 2019, https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/plus-ca-change-florence-b-price-in-the-blacklivesmatter-era/; Samantha Ege, “Composing a Symphonist: Florence Price and the Hand of Black Women’s Fellowship,” Women and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture 24 (2020): 7-27. 

– John Michael Cooper

Denton, Texas, 10 May 2021

Sample Performances