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Florence Beatrice Price: Black American female classical composer

Florence Beatrice Price, the name was forever etched on echelons of music history on a fine summer day when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra introduced her as the first  African-American woman to perform with an orchestra of this caliber. Florence was a music teacher, organist, pianist, and classical music composer. She also became the first African-American woman who became famous as a symphonic composer.

Florence Beatrice Price

Early‌ ‌life‌ 

She was born to James Smith and Florence Gulliver on the 9th of April, 1887, as Florence Beatrice Smith. The Smiths were a well-respected mixed-race family in Little Rock, Arkansas. Despite prevailing racial issues, James Smith was well-known in the community and also the sole  African American dentist in Arkansas. Florence was a music teacher and was responsible for guiding her daughter’s early music training.

Florence Price gave her first solo piano performance at the mere age of four and had already published her first composition by the time she turned eleven. She graduated as a valedictorian within 3 years, and after completing high school, joined the “New England Conservatory of Music” situated in Boston, Massachusetts. She enrolled for a major in organ and piano. Also, she initially introduced herself as Mexican to counter racial discrimination. Frederick Converse taught her counterpoint while George Chadwick gave her composition lessons. While studying, Florence also crafted her maiden symphony and string trio. In 1906, she graduated from the Conservatory with a teaching certificate and a diploma in organ.

Musical Journey

After graduation, she returned to Arkansas, taking up teaching for a while. In 1910, Florence joined the Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia, as the head of their music department. She married Thomas J. Price, an attorney, in 1912 and shifted back to Little Rock. However, in 1927, a series of horrifying racial incidents prompted the Price family to look for greener pastures. Like most of the African-American community during the Great Migration, they moved north, settling in Chicago.

Florence began studying organ, orchestration, and composition under eminent teachers in Chicago, including Leo Sowerby, Wesley La Violette, Carl Busch, and Arthur Olaf Andersen, to name a few. In 1928, she published four piano pieces. Florence also enrolled in the various musical institutions across the city - the  American Conservatory of Music, University of Chicago, Chicago Musical College, etc. to study arts, languages, and music. However, in 1931, her personal life deteriorated, and a combination of an abusive husband and financial restraints led to a divorce. She started living with her two daughters and soon became a music composer and organist for the radio and silent films to make ends meet. She used a pen name to avoid controversy and lived with friends, eventually moving in with Margaret Bonds, another black composer, pianist, and her student. Margaret introduced her to other prominent figures in the world of music, contralto Marian Anderson and writer Langston Hughes who would go on to play crucial roles in aiding her career. Florence and Margaret started collaborating and soon received national recognition for their work. They both entered the Wanamaker Foundation Awards, where Florence won the first prize for her “Symphony in E minor” and the third prize for her Piano Sonata. She collected total prize money worth $500.

On the 15th of June, 1933, history was made when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, one of the big five in the USA, premiered her Symphony in “E minor,” which was conducted by Frederick Stock. Florence became the first black woman to have her music performed by a major orchestra. Soon, her orchestral works became famous as the Women's Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Women’s Symphony, and the WPA Symphony Orchestra performed her compositions. Price also composed several extended works for the chamber, violin, piano, and orchestra, including a violin concerto, three piano concertos, and four symphonies.

Her most famous works are “Moon Bridge,” “My Soul's Been Anchored in the Lord,” “Songs to the Dark Virgin,” and “Three Little Negro Dances.” She vastly utilized the typical African-American rhythms and melodies in her compositions. Her “Symphony in E minor,” Concert Overtures on Negro Folksongs, and Spirituals all display the colloquial flavor. In 1940, she was inducted into the American Society of “Composers, Authors, and Publishers” for her contributions. In 1949, she dedicated her spiritual arrangements, “I'm Workin’ on My Buildin,” and "I Am Bound for the Kingdom,” to Marian Anderson.

A Forgotten Star 

Florence Beatrice Price believed that music goes deep, just like Religion. She was dedicated, driven, and exacting in all facets of life, including music. She was a true learner. Music, which was initially her passion, became the genre that offered her fulfillment. However, her work has somewhat lost its significance in modern times. Her contemporaries heralded her work as worthy of a place in the music repertory, but in recent times, she is merely an outlier. Just like she had faced the barriers of gender and race, her music also faces the barriers of negligence.

Back then, multiple influential figures in the American classical music scene had underestimated her skill and expertise, declining her appeals for opportunities. She conquered them all and gained plaudits among numerous African American women like Marian Anderson, Maude Roberts George, and Marian Anderson, who successfully rendered her music on the global stage. Florence wasn’t deterred by an abusive spouse, divorce, single motherhood, and racial prejudice. These obstructions merely consolidated her resolve and spurred her on. She made history. And it’s the responsibility of the modern generation of classical music, churn that all music enthusiasts around the world, to revive and respect her art. She shouldn’t be limited to “Black History Month.” After all, when music is good, it’s unquestionably good. Good music cannot be held back or pegged down. It ultimately reaches the mass. That, ultimately, is Florence Beatrice Price’s legacy. She is the legend, the inspiration who didn’t toe the line.

 

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