Florence B. Price (1887–1953)
Florence Price was an American composer, pianist, organist, and teacher. She created over 300 works, including for orchestra, various combinations of chamber ensemble, choir, voice and piano, organ, and solo piano. Her compositions often blend Euro-American art music forms with elements from her African American heritage, such as melodies that reference those of spirituals.
During her life, Price was the first African American woman to earn major recognition as a symphonic composer. However, despite her successes, she struggled to have her works widely performed, and openly acknowledged that her being a woman and a person of colour were barriers. Much of her catalogue was neglected after her death, but in recent years, new research about her life and work and the revival of her compositions in performance have begun to more fully illuminate her contributions to American music.
Price (née Smith) was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, on April 9, 1887, during a period when white supremacy was being restored in the South. Her mother was her first music teacher, who carefully nurtured her talent. Price went on to study composition at Boston’s New England Conservatory, one of the few institutions that admitted African Americans at the time. After earning diplomas in organ and piano, she returned to the South to teach and compose. In 1928, to escape growing racial oppression in Little Rock, Price and her family moved to Chicago. There, she flourished creatively; she won prizes and publication contracts for her piano pieces, penned popular songs for radio commercials, and arranged spirituals for performance. In 1931, she began writing symphonies. Her Symphony in E Minor won the Wanamaker Prize in 1932, which led to its performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Frederick Stock—the first work by a Black woman composer to be performed by a major American orchestra.
The success of her E Minor symphony cemented Price’s reputation and her orchestral works were subsequently performed by ensembles such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, American Symphony Orchestra, and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Celebrated singers such as Marion Anderson and Leontyne Price interpreted her songs, and her organ and piano pieces, which she also taught, were regularly performed. Price remained active as a composer and teacher until her death in Chicago on June 9, 1953.
By Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley