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  • Harmony Sinfonia

A Celebration of Female Composers: Florence Price

Welcome to our Celebration of Female Composers series! In the lead up to our next concert, Celebrating Female Composers, on Saturday 9th March 2019, we will be profiling various female composers. Some will be featuring on the next programme, and some are just extraordinary composers that we love to listen to.

Next up is Florence Price, an African-American composer whose First Symphony is on our next programme.

Name: Florence Beatrice Price

Born: 9 April 1887 in Arkansas

Died: 3 June 1953 in Chicago

What They Say:

“It is a faultless work, a work that speaks its own message with restraint and yet with passion . . . worthy of a place in the regular symphonic repertory.” – Chicago Daily News review after the first performance of Price’s Symphony No.1

What She Says:

"I found it possible to snatch a few precious days in the month of January in which to write undisturbed. But oh, dear me, when shall I ever be so fortunate again as to break a foot?" – From a letter to a friend. The broken foot gave Price time to write her first symphony.

Reading into the life of Florence Price is like prying open a treasure chest that was hidden in plain sight. Well, almost plain sight: Almost none of her vast body of music is on IMSLP – every musician’s first port of call when trying to get their hands on scores – and until a decade ago much of her work had been assumed lost.

Enter fate, and the University of Arkansas! For in 2009, a couple buying a run-down house south of Chicago chanced to find several boxes full of papers and manuscripts in the property. These boxes turned out to contain many original works by Price, including the score for her fourth symphony which had been assumed to be lost. The building had been Price’s summer home, and had fallen into disrepair after her death. All the documents were taken into the collection of the University of Arkansas, in the US state of Price’s birth.

The University of Arkansas was where we turned for help when we struggling to hire the music for Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, which we are performing at our next concert. And it turns out that the University of Arkansas will run you off 500 pages of sheet music and send it to the UK if you ask them nicely (and pay the hire fees, obviously). Hooray for globalisation! We ended up with shiny new scores and parts to work from, and are enjoying delving into this work.

The story of Price’s life reads like a “triumphing against the odds” inspirational movie. Price’s father was a well-known and respected dentist, but as a person of colour his practice was limited. After graduating top of her class in high school, Florence was sent to the New England Conservatory of Music, which is the oldest independent school of music in the US. Here she studied piano and organ, and was properly introduced to composition. She was given the coveted last final spot on the bill of her class’s final recital, finishing up the programme with a flourish, but the programme notes show that Price was passing as Mexican at least for this concert and probably for her third year at the Conservatory. Price’s mother was apparently mixed-race, and Price herself was comparatively light-skinned, and this false registration of her birthplace gives a good indication of how safe Price – or perhaps her family – felt identifying as a woman of colour.

After completing her studies, Price returned to Little Rock to teach, and there she married and had two daughters, but rising racial tensions culminating in a brutal lynching within a middle-class black neighbourhood led to the family moving to Chicago, where Price composed her first symphony.

The Symphony No.1 in E Minor is a hugely important work in both the historical and cultural contexts. As every article about Price will tell you, this was the first symphony written by an African-American woman to be performed by a professional orchestra. What few articles go on to explain is that the performance was within the Chicago World Fair of 1933, the orchestra was the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and that the programme for the concert seemed designed to feature people of colour, as opposed to an “American Night” concert the preceding night. The programme included works by Samuel Coleridge Taylor and Roland Hughes, both of whom would go on to make huge waves in the music world.

This excellent Twitter thread by musicologist Doug Shadle points out that despite apparent programming, the first piece of the night was written by John Powell, a known white supremacist, whose piece Overture – In Old Virginia apparently was exploitative enough of black musical idioms that it qualified for such a concert.

Price’s career blossomed in Chicago, and she became part of a network of African Americans who supported each other in the arts world. Price worked with Marian Anderson, a leading African American singer, who performed several of Price’s songs, including a notable performance of Price’s arrangement of My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord at the famous Lincoln Memorial concert of 1939.

Various correspondences between Price and publishing companies show how hard she had to fight to promote her work. If you fancy falling down a rabbit hole, the University of Arkansas has digitised many of her documents and you can happily work your way through them here - it’s fascinating stuff. Also very much worth watching is this excerpt from The Caged Bird: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price for context of her early life and education.


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