Florence Beatrice Smith Price (1887–1953)
by Randye Jones
Composer, educator, organist and pianist Florence Beatrice Smith Price was part of a generation of post-antebellum era African American musicians who forged pathways into the field of Classical music. During her lifetime, Price experienced critical success, an accomplishment rarely experienced by African American composers of the era and never before by an African American woman.
Conversely, she and other African American classical musicians who flourished during the Harlem Renaissance faced nearly insurmountable challenges finding commercial success. It has only been within the last few years–decades after Price’s death–that her compositions have begun to receive the notoriety in publication and performance that they deserve.
Forging a Musical Pathway
Florence Beatrice Smith was born 9 April 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas. Her father, Dr. James H. Smith, was a dentist–thought to be one of only a dozen of African descent in the United States at that time–who had relocated to Little Rock after his practice was destroyed in the great Chicago Fire of 1871. Her mother, Florence Gulliver, had been an elementary music teacher in the Indianapolis public school system. Despite the limited educational opportunities available to African Americans in the post-Civil War South, the Smith family had sufficient financial means and societal access to provide the private instruction their youngest child needed in order to develop her prodigal musical talents.
Young Florence studied piano with her mother, giving her first recital at age four, and attended elementary school with another African American who would become a successful classical musician, William Grant Still. She continued her studies with Charlotte Andrews Stephens, an Oberlin Conservatory-trained musician. At age 14, Florence graduated from high school as class valedictorian and was admitted to the New England Conservatory of Music. She studied music composition with the conservatory director, George Chadwick. It is believed that she sold her first composition at age 16, though the exact details are uncertain. and graduated with a diploma in piano as a teacher and in organ performance in 1906.
For four years, Florence taught at Little Rock’s Shorter College and offered private music lessons, then she joined the music faculty at Clark University in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1912, she returned to Little Rock to marry a young lawyer, Thomas J. Price, who became a partner in the law firm of Scipio Africanus Jones. The law firm became embroiled in the 1919 “Elaine Race Riot Case,” successfully defending the lives of the African American men charged in the aftermath. During this period, Florence taught music privately and continue to compose while giving birth to three children–her eldest dying in infancy. She twice placed second for the Holstein Prize for composition.
Life for African Americans in Little Rock had grown steadily worse to the point where the Price family no longer felt safe residing in the town. They relocated to Chicago in 1927, and, now separated from her abusive husband, Florence Price began exploring educational opportunities in music and medicine, finally settling on music. She succeeded in finding publishers for her compositions, drawing much of her financial success from the publication of works for beginning pianists and writing music for radio commercials. She also taught music privately to young students, including Margaret Bonds, in the community.
In 1931, Price completed her Symphony in E Minor, receiving first place in the 1932 Rodman Wanamaker Prize Competition for the work. Musicologist and Price biographer Rae Linda Brown noted from her examination of Price’s manuscript that:
Originally subtitled the “Negro Symphony,” this work assimilates characteristic Afro-American folk idioms into classical structures. But unlike [William Grant] Still and [William] Dawson, Price abandoned a title that would have suggested a programmatic work and, perhaps, would have limited the perception of the symphony’s scope. Since the subtitle was almost obliterated from the score I examined, it can be concluded that Price changed her mind prior to the work’s first performance; none of the reviews refer to its programmatic name.1
Price’s symphony was selected to premiere during the Century of Progress Exposition at the Chicago World Fair. The 15 June 1933 concert marked the first time a major orchestra performed a symphonic work by an African American woman. The event was described by Robert S. Abbott in the 22 June 1933 edition of the Chicago Defender:
No one could have sat through that program sponsored by the Chicago Friends of Music at the Auditorium Theater last week and not have felt, with a sense of deep satisfaction, that the Race is making progress in music. First there was a feeling of awe as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, an aggregation of master musicians of the white race, and directed by Dr. Frederick Stock, internationally known conductor, swung into the beautiful, harmonious strains of a composition by a Race woman. And when, after the number was completed, the large auditorium, filled to the brim with music lovers of all ages, rang out in applause both for the composer and the orchestral rendition, it seemed that the evening could hold no greater thrills.2
Author Lawrence Schenbeck noted that Price was not named in the article, despite Abbott’s reference to other musicians of the African diaspora, tenor Roland Hayes, pianist Margaret Bonds and composers Harry T. Burleigh and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.
Thus, of the major Race participants, only Florence Price was not mentioned by name, and her creative effort took a rhetorical third-place in this account. Of course, Abbott was using a well-worn journalistic device: build to a climax. But his neglecting to name Price may also be symptomatic of his inability to “see” a woman as artistic creator…. The simplest way to explain this blindness would be to place it in the context of Price’s role as a pioneer. One germinal study of status in American life concluded that for many people, “master status traits” such as race and sex overpowered any other countering characteristics in their perceptions of individuals.3
Beginning in the 1930s, Price was very active in Chicago’s musical life. Her compositions were performed by the Chicago Symphony, and she performed her own Piano Concerto in One Movement as piano soloist with the Chicago Women’s Symphony under the baton of Ebba Sundstrom (Bonds would perform the work with the orchestra in 1934). Her body of instrumental music included works for orchestra, organ, violin, with many of hew compositions written for musical instruction within her own studio.
Her best known vocal work, the setting of the Negro Spiritual, “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord,” for medium voice and piano, was published by Gamble Hinged Music in 1937. Famed contralto Marian Anderson recorded the song for Victor that same year and regularly performed the song in concert. Anderson would also program Price’s “Songs to a Dark Virgin,” based on a poem by Langston Hughes, for her second American tour.
Anderson also played a significant role in introducing the song to the world during her historic Lincoln Memorial concert on April 9, 1939. An estimated 75,000 concert attendees and an international radio audience heard Ms. Anderson’s stirring performance of Price’s setting as part of a program that symbolized an acknowledgment of the talents of African American musicians in the world of Classical music. Writer Rosalyn Story explained the significance of the day and the song:
On an afternoon heavy with political and social portent (the program featured arias, patriotic anthems, hymns and spirituals), Price’s simple song made for a fitting closure. Its stirring syncopation, dark and measured pulse, and final strain, ending in a triumphant flourish to the high octave, inspired waves of cheers from a crowd galvanized against the ills of discrimination under the banners of art and faith…. That was Florence Price’s gift. The first American Black woman composer to achieve national recognition distinguished her compositions with humility and nobility, using her finely honed talent to communicate a unique synthesis of two cultures, African American and European.4
(In 1982, the song was performed in Constitution Hall–the site denied to Anderson 43 years beforehand–by soprano Leontyne Price. The famed soprano dedicated her performance to Anderson and presented the same program Anderson sang on the steps of the memorial.)
While Price experienced some professional success as a composer, she was never able to obtain the level of acknowledgment she sought. Author Michaela Baranello described one instance in November 1943 when the composer unsuccessfully solicited performance opportunities by corresponding with:
…Serge Koussevitzky, the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, asking him to consider performing her scores. “Unfortunately the work of a woman composer is preconceived by many to be light, froth, lacking in depth, logic and virility,” she said. “Add to that the incident of race–I have Colored blood in my veins–and you will understand some of the difficulties that confront one in such a position.” It was her second letter to Koussevitzky; there is no evidence he ever replied to her.5
Price was regularly compared with two contemporaries, William Grant Still and William Dawson. Although all three composers drew heavily from their African American heritage:
[Price’s] methods are actually quite close to [Antonin] Dvořák’s in the way she approaches the use of ethnic materials (both of the Old and the New Worlds), and she can certainly be aligned stylistically with Dawson, who said that his aim was to “write a symphony in the Negro folk idiom…in the same symphonic form used by composers of the romantic-nationalistic school. When Price’s third symphony was to be performed in Michigan by Walter Poole in 1940, she wrote of it: “It is intended to be Negroid in character and expression. In it no attempt, however, has been made to project Negro music solely in the purely traditional manner. None of the themes are adaptations or derivations of folk songs.” In this respect she did differ from Dawson, who used actual folk melodies in his symphony, but she certainly did not avoid ethnic emphasisin her music.6
Throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s, Price continued composing works for a wide variety of vocal and instrumental forces. She was planning a trip to Europe when she suffered a stroke. Florence Beatrice Price died on 3 June 1953.
While there were some limited efforts to commemorate Price’s life and musical accomplishments, knowledge of her role in 20th century American music has–until recent years–become nearly non-existent.
Reclaiming Price’s Musical Heritage
Much of Price’s compositional output was considered to be lost until an estimated 200 manuscripts and other papers by the composer were discovered in her former summer house in St. Anne, a suburb of Chicago, in 2009. The discovery offered the musical world a new opportunity to discover Price’s music, perhaps now at a time when her output can be evaluated and appreciated in its own right.
1Rae Linda Brown, “William Grant Still, Florence Price, and William Dawson: Echoes of the Harlem Renaissance,” in Black Music in the Harlem Renaissance: A Collection of Essays, ed. Samuel A. Floyd, Jr. (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1990), 78.
2Chicago Defender, 22 June 1933, sec. 1, p. 11.
3Lawrence Schenbeck. “Music, Gender, and ‘Uplift’ in the ‘Chicago Defender,’ 1927-1937.” The Musical Quarterly 81, no. 3 (1997): 357. http://www.jstor.org/stable/742322.
4Rosalyn Story, “Rediscovering the Majesty of Composer Florence Price.” The New Crisis, November/December 2001, 54.
5Michaela Baranello, “Welcoming a Black Female Composer Into the Canon. Finally,” New York Times 9 February 2018, sect. AR, p. 10.
6Barbara Garvey Jackson. “Florence Price, Composer.” The Black Perspective in Music 5, no. 1 (1977): 38. doi:10.2307/1214357.
The Spirituals Database is a searchable listing of compact discs, long-playing discs, 78 rpm, and audio cassette recordings by various vocalists, including this artist, of Negro Spirituals set for concert performance. Information is available about song selections spanning a century from Burleigh’s “Deep River” to the present day. To see the recordings by this composer currently represented in the database, please click on the image to the right.
To cite this page:
Afrocentric Voices in Classical Music. Created by Randye Jones. Created/Last modified: January 21, 2020. Accessed:. http://www.afrovoices.com/wp/florence-price-biography.