In our latest post in Melodia’s blog series, ‘The Women Behind the Music,’ author Pam McAllister explores the life and music of composer Florence B. Price (1887-1953)
We begin with a stroke of luck. In 2009, Vicki and Darrell Gatwood bought a dilapidated fixer-upper outside of St. Anne, Illinois, an hour south of Chicago. Cautiously exploring the storm-damaged, vandal-ravaged, abandoned house, the Gatwoods stumbled upon a treasure trove, dozens of musical scores by Florence B. Price. They did a little research and learned that she was a mostly-forgotten African-American classical composer who had died fifty-six years earlier. Turns out, the house had once been her summer home. The conscientious couple contacted the appropriate archivists and helped fuel renewed interest in one of America’s most prolific composers.
The third child of mixed-race parents, Florence Smith was raised in an upscale neighborhood in Little Rock, Arkansas. Her father was the only black dentist in the city and her mother was a music teacher. Little Florence turned out to be a prodigy, giving her first piano performance at age 4, having her first composition published at 11, graduating top of her class from high school at 14.
At the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, one of the few schools that accepted students of color, Florence graduated with honors, then returned south. At age 23, she became the head of the Music Department at Clark Atlanta University in Georgia, which served a predominantly black student population.
CHICAGO BLACK RENAISSANCE
In 1912, Florence married a lawyer, Thomas Price. The couple returned to Little Rock to raise their family, but the enforcement of Jim Crow laws had ushered in an era of increased segregation and escalating racial tensions. In May 1927, after the gruesome lynching of a black man, 5,000 white people rioted, destroying black businesses and churches, terrorizing the black community. The Price family packed up their belongings and fled the Deep South.
Though it meant a brain drain for southern states, the Great Migration of six million black citizens was a brain gain for the north. Florence and her family settled in the Windy City, where the Chicago Black Renaissance provided fertile ground for artists and intellectuals such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Lorraine Hansberry, Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson … and Florence Price.
A DECADE OF BLACK SISTERHOOD
At the 1930 convention of the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM), Price’s former student, pianist-composer Margaret Bonds, premiered her Fantasie Nègre, hailed by one reviewer as the “surprise of the evening.”
Price persevered, through several years of marital upheaval — abuse, divorce, remarriage, separation. She supported her children by playing the organ at silent movies and writing ditties for radio ads. Despite hard times, she flourished in the city’s creative environment, penning over 300 works including symphonies, concertos, and art songs, often combining classical European style with the haunting melodies of African-American spirituals.
In 1932, her Symphony in E Minor won first prize in a major competition and, the following year, when the President of NANM, Maude Roberts George, advocated for Price, the award-winning piece was premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the World’s Fair. This made Price the first African-American female composer to have a symphony played by a major U.S. orchestra, albeit one in which all the musicians were white males.
In telling the story of Florence Price, we celebrate the network of black women musicians who encouraged and collaborated with each other. Price became friends with Marian Anderson and wrote over fifty arrangements for her. In 1939, after being snubbed by the Daughters of the American Revolution, Anderson famously sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as the whole world listened. She closed that historic concert with the spiritual, “My Soul’s Been Anchored In the Lord,” putting the full name of the composer-arranger in the printed program, her friend Florence B. Price.
In spite of her prolific output, Price suffered from what she called her “two handicaps — those of sex and race.” She died of a stroke in 1953 at the age of 66, denied her rightful place in the lineup of the nation’s great composers.
Fortunately for us, that is changing. As we push against the limitations imposed by systems of white privilege and patriarchy, Price’s contribution to the American canon continues to unfold as a delightful surprise. On Sunday, May 22, the Melodia Women’s Choir will sing “Night,” Price’s setting of a poem by Bessie Mayle.
TO GO DEEPER
The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price by Rae Linda Brown, University of Illinois Press, June 22, 2020
Who Is Florence Price? Picture book by middle school students from Kaufman Music Centre, November 18, 2021, Schirmer Trade Books
“Composer Florence Price: To Be Young, Gifted, and Black In a Jim Crow Era” by Women’s Voices for Change, February 7, 2016 https://womensvoicesforchange.org/composer-florence-price-to-be-young-gifted-and-black-in-a-jim-crow-era.htm
“After Lost Scores Are Found In Abandoned House, Musicians Give Life to Florence Price’s Music” KUAR, NPR, All Things Considered, May 4, 2018
“Lift Every Voice: Marian Anderson, Florence B. Price and the Sound of Black Sisterhood” by Alisha Lola Jones, NPR, August 30, 2019. https://www.npr.org/2019/08/30/748757267/lift-every-voice-marian-anderson-florence-b-price-and-the-sound-of-black-sisterh
“Now Hear This: Florence Price and the American Migration” PBS, April 15, 2022. https://www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/now-hear-this-florence-price-and-the-american-migration-about/13478/