Florence Price

Introducing Florence Price
Composer and Trailblazer
On June 15, 1933 the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed the world premiere of Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1. After the performance, the Chicago Daily News reported: “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.” 

But the music didn’t take its rightful place in
Florence Price at Piano
symphonic repertoire until 80 years later... 

In 2009, Vicki and Darrell Gatwood, of St. Anne, Illinois, were preparing to renovate an abandoned house on the outskirts of town. The structure was in poor condition: vandals had ransacked it, and a fallen tree had torn a hole in the roof. In a part of the house that had remained dry, the Gatwoods made a curious discovery: piles of musical manuscripts, books, personal papers, and other documents. The name that kept appearing in the materials was that of Florence Price... 

Florence Price was a trailblazer. On that life-changing evening in Chicago, she became the first female African-American composer to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra. It was an all-white and all-male orchestra taking a stance; their audience enthusiastically embraced the performance and Price’s music.  

From humble beginnings in the American South – especially during a complicated and often-violent period of our nation’s history where race and gender so unjustly defined and restricted her opportunities -- Price did more than survive. She blazed a trail and knocked down barriers in a fascinating story that is quickly becoming part of American musical and African-American history.

Florence PriceFlorence Price was born in 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas. Price’s mother gave her music lessons when none of the leading teachers in town would take her in.  Price grew up in a family of trailblazers: in addition to being her daughter’s first piano teacher, Price’s mom owned a restaurant and sold real estate prior to becoming the secretary of the International Loan and Trust Company. Her father was Little Rock’s only African-American dentist. The governor of Arkansas was one of his patients. 

After graduating from high school at the age of 14 (she was the class valedictorian), Price enrolled at the New England Conservatory in Boston in 1903. Following her mother’s advice, Price identified herself as Mexican on the college application due to the widespread prejudice against African-Americans. In just three years at the conservatory, she gained a soloist’s diploma in organ and a teacher’s diploma in piano. The principal, George Whitefield Chadwick, encouraged Price to compose and it was career-changing advice. 

Price returned to the South to teach in the town of Cotton Plant at the Arkadelphia Presbyterian Academy for a year and then at Little Rock’s Shorter College. In 1910 she moved to Atlanta, Georgia and became head of the music department at Clark University, staying there until 1912. It was a tremendous achievement for a woman at that time. Price soon returned to Little Rock where she taught, got married, and began raising a family.
But prejudices and inequality permeated their life. So when it was necessary, Price created her own opportunities: she established her own music studio and she founded the Little Rock Club of Musicians. Before long, the Prices left Arkansas for a better life of personal, professional, and artistic opportunities in Chicago.

Despite initial setbacks in Chicago (including a
Florence Price
divorce -- leaving her a struggling single mom making ends meet by playing organ for silent films and writing popular songs for WGN radio ads), Price blossomed. When her Symphony No. 1 captured the top prize in the Wanamaker Music Composition Contest, it caught the attention of conductor Frederick Stock leading to its premiere with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Price’s Symphony No. 1 is a blend of two traditions — African-American and European. The opening movement is reminiscent of Antonin Dvorak's "New World" Symphony, with its portentous sweep and lyrical melodies.  Over nearly 40 minutes, Price includes elements that would come to define her style: rhythmic syncopation, spiritual melodies, gospel church music, polyphony, references to African dances, blue notes, the pentatonic scale, and African instruments such as the marimba.

Over several decades, Price composed over 300 pieces of music: symphonies, chamber works, and songs noted for their lush orchestration and enchanting lyricism. It is music that has as its basis slave songs that later became firmly entrenched in the American musical landscape. While Price is a trailblazer, her music might best be called a bridge.

Price made significant friendships and partnerships during the 1930s, including with the pianist and composer Margaret Bonds and writer Langston Hughes.  Contralto Marian Anderson, who had sung Price’s spiritual arrangement of “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord” in a broadcast from Prague on May 6, 1937, famously performed the song at the end of her landmark concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday in 1939. With 75,000 people attending the performance and many more listening on the radio, Price won overnight fame.

Despite these achievements, in 1943 Price sent a letter to Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, acknowledging what she was up against. "I have two handicaps," she wrote: "I am a woman and I have some Negro blood in my veins."

Florence Price was rightfully celebrated in her day. But even with her relative success, she struggled to keep a roof over her head and was saved from destitution by friends. She suffered from poor health for most of her later life and was often in the hospital. In May 1953 her work was gaining momentum, and she was preparing to fly to Europe to promote her music when she suffered a stroke. Florence Price died on June 3rd.

Her untimely death and the vast amount of music she composed (but was never heard) conspired to dim her reputation over the years -- until now. Her music was often discussed more than it was performed. Much of it was almost lost forever in her abandoned home in St. Anne, Illinois. But tucked away in those 30 boxes discovered by the Gatwoods in 2009 are approximately 200 compositions which librarians and scholars are poring over – and arts organizations all over the world are finally sharing with their audiences for the first time.

Florence Price's story is far from over. Your ASO was honored to bring her music to our largest stage at Trailblazers on November 9, 2019 and we welcome opportunities to continue sharing her life and legacy with our community. 

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The Anchorage Symphony Orchestra is funded, in part, by the Atwood Foundation, Richard L and Diane M Block Foundation , Municipality of Anchorage, Anchorage Assembly, Alaska State Council on the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts and through the generosity of many individuals and corporate community leaders.
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