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Florence Beatrice Price (April 9, 1887, Little Rock, Arkansas – June 3, 1953, Chicago, Illinois) was an American classical composer. She was the first African American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer, and the first to have a composition played by a major orchestra.
Price was born to Florence Gulliver and James H. Smith on April 9, 1887. Price was one of three children in a mixed race family. Despite racial issues of the era, Price’s family was well respected and did well within their community. Her father was a dentist and her mother was a music teacher who guided Florence’s early musical training. Price had her first piano performance at the age of 4 and went on to have her first composition published at the age of 11. By time she was 14, Price had graduated Capitol High School at the top of her class and was enrolled in the New England Conservatory of Music with a major in piano and organ. Initially, Price pretended to be Mexican to avoid the stigma people had towards African-Americans at the time. While in college, Price was able to study composition and counterpoint with composers George Chadwick and Frederick Converse. She wrote her first string trio and symphony in college and graduated in 1907 with honors and both an artist diploma in organ and a teaching certificate.
Price taught in Arkansas briefly before moving to Atlanta, Georgia in 1910, where she became the head of Clark University’s music department. In 1912, Price married Thomas J. Price, an attorney, and moved back to Little Rock, Arkansas. After a series of racial incidents in Little Rock, particularly a lynching that took place in 1927, the family moved to Chicago where Price began a new and fulfilling period in her compositional career. She studied composition, orchestration, and organ with the leading teachers in the city including Arthur Olaf Anderson, Carl Busch, Wesley La Violette, and Leo Sowerby, and published four pieces for piano in 1928. While in Chicago, Price was at various times enrolled at the Chicago Musical College, Chicago Teacher’s College, Chicago University, and American Conservatory of Music, studying languages and liberal arts subjects as well as music.
Financial struggles led to a divorce in 1931, and Florence became a single mother to her two daughters. To make ends meet, she worked as an organist for silent film screenings and composed songs for radio ads under a pen name. During this time, Price lived with friends and eventually moved in with her student and friend, Margaret Bonds. This friendship connected Price with writer Langston Hughes and singer Marian Anderson, both prominent figures in the art world who aided in Price’s future success as a composer. Together, Price and Bonds began to achieve national recognition for their compositions and performances. In 1932, both Price and Bonds submitted compositions for the Wanamaker Foundation Awards. Price won first and second place with her Symphony in E minor, and for her Piano Sonata, earning her a $500 prize. Bonds came in first place in the song category, with a song entitled Sea Ghost. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Frederick Stock, premiered the winning composition, Symphony In E Minor, on June 15, 1933, making Price’s piece the first composition by an African-American woman to be played by a major orchestra. A number of Price’s other orchestral works were also played by the WPA Symphony Orchestra of Detroit and the Chicago Women’s Symphony. Price wrote other extended works for orchestra, chamber works, art songs, works for violin, organ anthems, piano pieces, spiritual arrangements, four symphonies, three piano concertos, and a violin concerto. Some of her more popular works are: Three Little Negro Dances, Songs to a Dark Virgin, My Soul's Been Anchored in de Lord for piano or orchestra and voice, and Moon Bridge. Price made considerable use of characteristic black melodies and rhythms in many of her works. Her “Concert Overture on Negro Spirituals,” “Symphony in E minor,” and “Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint” for string quartet, all serve as excellent examples of her idiomatic work.
Price was inducted into the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers in 1940 for her work as a composer. In 1949, Price published two of her spiritual arrangements, “I Am Bound for the Kingdom,” and “I’m Workin’ on My Buildin’,” and dedicated them to the African-American contralto Marian Anderson, who performed them on a regular basis. On June 3rd, 1953, Price died from a stroke in Chicago, Illinois. Following her death, much of her work was overshadowed as new musical styles emerged that fit the changing needs of modern society. Some of her work was lost, but as more African-American and female composers have gained attention for their works, so has Price. In 2001, the Women’s Philharmonic created an album of some of her work. Pianist Karen Walwyn and The New Black Repertory Ensemble performed Price’s “Concerto in One Movement” and “Symphony in E Minor” in December 2011.
Even though her training was steeped in European tradition, Price’s music consists of mostly the American idiom and reveals her Southern roots. Price wrote with a vernacular style, using sounds and ideas that fit the reality of urban society. Being deeply religious, Price frequently used the music of the African-American church as material for her arrangements. At the urging of her mentor George Whitefield Chadwick, Price began to incorporate elements of African-American spirituals, emphasizing the rhythm and syncopation of the spirituals rather than just using the text. Price’s melodies were blues-inspired and mixed with more traditional, European Romantic techniques. The weaving of tradition and modernism reflected the way life was for African-Americans in urban cities at the time.
- Symphony No. 1 in E minor, 1931–1932
- Ethiopia's Shadow in America, 1932 [first known performance: January 2015]
- Mississippi River, sym., 1934
- Pianoforte Concerto in D minor, perf. 1934
- Symphony No. 2 in G minor
- Symphony No. 3 in C minor, 1940, US-NH
- Symphony No. 4 in D minor
- Violin Concerto No. 2 in D major, 1952
- Chicago Suite
- Colonial Dance, sym.
- Dances in the Canebrakes [arr. of pf piece]
- 2 concert ovs. [based on spirituals]
- Ov. "Sinner please don't let this harvest pass"
- Rhapsody, pf, orch
- Songs of the Oak, tone poem
- Suite of Negro Dances
- The Moon Bridge (M.R. Gamble), SSA, 1930;
- The New Moon, SSAA, 2 pf, 1930;
- The Wind and the Sea (P.L. Dunbar), SSAATTBB, pf, str qt, 1934;
- Witch of the Meadow (Gamble), SSA (1947);
- Sea Gulls, female chorus, fl, cl, vn, va, vc, pf, by 1951;
- Nature's Magic (Gamble), SSA (1953);
- Song for Snow (E. Coatsworth), SATB (1957);
- Abraham Lincoln walks at midnight (V. Lindsay), mixed vv, orch, org;
- After the 1st and 6th Commandments, SATB;
- Communion Service, F, SATB, org;
- Nod (W. de la Mare), TTBB; Resignation (Price), SATB;
- Song of Hope (Price);
- Spring Journey, SSA, str qt
Solo vocal (all with pf)
- Dreamin' Town (Dunbar), 1934;
- 4 Songs, B-Bar, 1935;
- My Dream (Hughes), 1935;
- Dawn's Awakening (J.J. Burke), 1936;
- Songs to the Dark Virgin (L. Hughes), (1941);
- Hold Fast to Dreams (Hughes), 1945;
- Night (L.C. Wallace), (1946);
- Out of the South blew a Wind (F.C. Woods), (1946);
- An April Day (J.F. Cotter), (1949);
- The Envious Wren (A. and P. Carey);
- Fantasy in Purple (Hughes);
- Feet o' Jesus (Hughes);
- Forever (Dunbar);
- The Glory of the Day was in her Face (J.W. Johnson);
- The Heart of a Woman (G.D. Johnson); Love-in-a-Mist (Gamble);
- Nightfall (Dunbar); Resignation (Price), also arr. chorus;
- Song of the Open Road; Sympathy (Dunbar);
- To my Little Son (J.J. Davis);
- Travel's End (M.F. Hoisington); c90 other works
Chamber music / Works for brass band
- Suite for Brasses, 1730
- Moods, fl, cl, pf, 1953;
- Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint, str qt;
- Spring Journey, 2 vn, 2 va, 2 vc, db, pf;
- pieces for vn, pf; 2 pf qnts;
- other works for str qt
Works for Pianoforte
- At the Cotton Gin (1928);
- Sonata, e (1932);
- 3 Little Negro Dances, 1933, arr. sym. band, 1939, arr. 2 pf (1949);
- Bayou Dance, 1938;
- Dance of the Cotton Blossoms, 1938;
- Dances in the Canebrakes (1953);
- c10 other works,
- c70 teaching pieces
- Impromptu, 1941;
- Adoration (1951);
- Evening Song, 1951;
- In Quiet Mood, 1951;
- Passacaglia and Fugue;
- Retrospection (An Elf on a Moonbeam);
- Retrospection (1995);
- Sonata no.1, 1927;
- Suite no.1 (1993); Festal March (1995);
- Offertory (1995);
- other works
Arrangements of spirituals
- Fantasie negre, e, 1929 (Sinner, please don't let this harvest pass);
- My soul's been anchored in de Lord, 1v, pf (1937), arr. 1v, orch, arr. chorus, pf;
- Nobody knows the trouble I see, pf (1938);
- Were you there when they crucified my Lord?, pf (1942);
- I am bound for the kingdom, 1v, pf (1948);
- I'm workin' on my building, 1v, pf job at Florida
- Heav'n bound soldier, male chorus, 1949 [2 arrs.];
- Variations on a Folksong (Peter, go ring dem bells), org (1996);
- I couldn't hear nobody pray, SSAATTBB;
- Save me, Lord, save me, 1v, pf;
- Trouble done come my way, 1v, pf;
- 12 other works, 1v, pf
- MSS of 40 songs in US-PHu; other MSS in private collections; papers and duplicate MSS in U. of Arkansas, Florida
- Principal publishers: Fischer, Gamble-Hinged, Handy, McKinley, Presser
- Art Songs by American Composers / Yolanda Marcoulescou-Stern. Gasparo Records, 1993.
- Black Diamonds/ Althea Waites. Cambria Records, 1993.
- Florence Price: The Oak, Mississippi River Suite, and Symphony no.3/ Women’s Philharmonic. Koch International Classics, 2001. Reprinted 2008.
- Lucille Field Sings Songs by American Women Composers. Cambria Records, 2006.
- Negro Speaks of Rivers /Odekhiren Amaize, David Korevaar. Musician’s Showcase, 2000.
- Chicago Renaissance Woman: Florence B. Price Organ Works; Calcante CAL 014 1997
- Florence B. Price: Concerto in One Movement and Symphony in E minor; Albany TROY1295, 2011.
- Recorded by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under conductor Daniel Blendulf; broadcast for International Women's Day on BBC Radio 3's Live in Concert program of 8 March 2015
- Ammer, Christine. Unsung: A History of Women in American Music. Portland Oregon, Amadeus Press, 2001
- Brown, Rae Linda. “Price, Florence Smith” (Accessed 3/15/07.) <http://www.grovemusic.com>
- Brown, Rae Linda, and Wayne Shirley, eds. (2008). Florence Price: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3. Music of the United States of America (MUSA) vol. 19. Madison, Wisconsin: A-R Editions.
- Brown, Linda Rae. "William Grant Still, Florence Price, and William Dawson: Echoes of the Harlem Renaissance." 1990. RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, EBSCO host at www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/01/27/60minutes/main1245332.shtml.
- Florence Beatrice Smith Price. (2014). The Biography.com Website. Retrieved Dec 01, 2014, from http://www.biography.com/people/florence-beatrice-price-21120681.
- Perkins, Holly Ellistine. Biographies of Black Composers and Songwriters; A Supplementary Textbook. Iowa:Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1990.
- "Price, Florence Beatrice." Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2006. Encyclopedia.com. 1 Dec. 2014<http://www.encyclopedia.com>.
- Florence Beatrice Smith Price (1888-1953), Correspondence, musical scores, and other papers, 1906-1975, University of Arkansas, Special Collections, Manuscript Collection 988:
- Free scores by Florence Price at the International Music Score Library Project
- Florence Price at Music of the United States of America (MUSA)