Born in Arkansas in 1887, Florence Beatrice Price gave her first piano performance at the age of 4. She went on to attend the New England Conservatory of Music and would eventually settle in Chicago. There, her award-winning "Symphony in E Minor" was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, paving the way for more of her work to be commissioned by orchestras both domestically and abroad. Over the years, luminaries like Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price sang her compositions as well. A major contributor to classical music, Price died on June 3, 1953, in Chicago, Illinois.
Early Life and Training
Florence Beatrice Smith was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, on April 9, 1887, to Florence Gulliver and James H. Smith. With her mother being a music teacher, the younger Florence learned how to play piano as a child, as did her two siblings, and Florence gave her first recital at 4 years old. She attended the same elementary school as William Grant Still, another future classical music great, and both studied under educator Charlotte Andrews Stephens. By the time Smith graduated from Capitol High School as valedictorian at age 14, she had become a published composer.
Smith then attended the New England Conservatory of Music, passing for Mexican for a time at the behest of her mother, who was aware of the challenges to be faced by an African-American student. Smith was nonetheless able to forge friendships with other black composers, and was mentored by the likes of George Whitefield Chadwick and Frederick Converse. Upon her graduation from the Conservatory of Music in 1906, she worked as a teacher for a few years and continued composing. In 1910, she moved to Atlanta, Georgia, to head Clark University's music department.
Moving to Chicago
Florence married lawyer Thomas J. Price in 1912, moving back to Little Rock, and the couple eventually had two daughters. They also had a stillborn son, to whom Florence would dedicate one of her songs.
The Prices left Arkansas in 1927 after experiencing severe racial trauma due to a lynching in their community. Upon settling in Chicago, Illinois, Florence immersed herself in opportunity, studying at various musical institutions. Yet she also faced financial difficulties, as her marriage ended and she was forced to make ends meet for herself and her children. At one point, she roomed with one of her students, Margaret Bonds, with Price also working as a composer for radio ads and an organist for silent-film screenings. By the end of the 1920s, she made some headway as her songs for piano were being published.
Upon breaking her foot, Price was able to find the quiet time to complete the composition of the long-form "Symphony in E Minor," which would win the 1932 Wanamaker Prize. The following year, the piece was performed on June 15 at the Century of Progress Fair by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, making it the first work composed by an African-American woman to be played by a major symphony. A sweeping, romantic delight with four movements, "Symphony in E Minor" paved the way for orchestras both nationally and internationally to present work from Price over the next two decades, with the pianist being called upon to perform as well.
Price ultimately created more than 300 compositions, and was inducted into the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers in 1940.
Work Sung by Vocal Greats
In addition to her orchestral pieces, Price wrote shorter pieces sung by vocal luminaries of the day. Marian Anderson sang Price's arrangement of the spiritual "My Soul's Been Anchored in de Lord" during the famous Easter Sunday recital at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. Price also set Langston Hughes's poem, "Song to the Dark Virgin," to music, which was performed by Anderson to great acclaim. Later, vocalists like Leontyne Price and William Warfield would also cover Price's work.
Death and Legacy
Price died of a stroke on June 3, 1953, in Chicago, Illinois. It's believed that her musical contributions were soon overshadowed by the emphasis on more modernist composers who fit en vogue tastes. Many of Price's compositions were lost. Yet over time, as the work of African-American and female composers began to receive proper attention, her repertoire received new recognition.
In 2001, The Women's Philharmonic issued an album of Price's work, and a recording of her "Concerto in One Movement" and "Symphony in E Minor" was released in December of 2011, performed by pianist Karen Walwyn and the New Black Repertory Ensemble. In February 2013, classical music figure Terrance McKnight of radio station WQXR, New York produced and hosted a retrospective on Price's career.
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