Florence Price composed over 300 musical works, and she became the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphony composer. Price was well aware of the obstacles she would face, as evidenced by her letter to Serge Koussevitzky, a legendary conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where she said, “To begin with, I have two handicaps – those of sex and race. I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins.” However, she fought against the opposition she faced and believed in her own talents. Later in that letter, she stated, “I would like to be judged on merit alone.”
Florence Price was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887. Growing up, Price learned music from her mother, who was a music teacher, because white teachers did not want to teach her. She graduated from high school when she was 14 years old and moved to Boston where she enrolled in the New England Conservatory, one of the few music schools to accept Black students at the time. Here, she studied with Frederick Converse and George Chadwick, and she also earned two diplomas: one in piano performance, and another in organ performance. After graduating in 1906, she returned to Arkansas to teach. In 1927, she and her family moved north to Chicago, following the Great Migration driven by the desire to escape racial violence in the South.
Though Price was a phenomenal composer, she struggled with financially supporting her family as a single mother with three kids. She used her talents to write radio jingles, and she also played the organ for silent movies. Around 1934, Price composed the piece Concerto in One Movement for the piano. The music draws on African-American spirituals and folk influences, and she uses unique harmonies between the orchestra and piano soloist. The third and final section of this piece, the allegretto, was inspired by the African-American juba dance that originated from Angola and was brought to American plantations by slaves. You can listen to the whole piece here!
Though Concerto in One Movement is a beautiful, complex piece that highlights Price’s creativity and musical genius, it was her Symphony in E Minor that brought her into the limelight. She won Chicago’s Wanamaker Music Award for this piece, and it was premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on June 15, 1933. This was the first piece by a Black woman performed by a major U.S. orchestra. In this piece, she ties in African-American folk music with classical, European music, specifically Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Though she draws on European influences, she highlights African-American culture by bringing in melodies and beats inspired by the juba dance. Listen to the piece here! While listening, try to think about the following questions: Do you hear the African-American spirituals that are so central to Price’s work? How does she accomplish this? How is this sound different from traditional, Western, classical music? What emotions do you feel while listening to this piece? What images are you reminded of?
Despite the vast quantity of music she created, there are very few recordings of her compositions. In 2009, home renovators in Chicago rediscovered many of Price’s compositions and manuscripts. Though she died in 1953, the music world is now slowly learning more about Price’s life and the music she created.