2009 in a broken-down, abandoned house just outside St. Anne, Illinois, dozens of musical scores and papers by composer Florence Price were discovered. In this forgotten treasure trove there were two violin concerti and Price’s 4th Symphony, left unperformed and forgotten. It’s only been in the past decade that we’ve truly come to understand the genius and beauty of Florence Price’s music.
Price was born, Florence Beatrice Smith in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887. She was one of three children from a mixed race family. In spite of racial prejudice, Florence’s parents were well-respected in their community. Her father was a dentist and her mother was a music teacher; introducing Florence to the piano.
Florence was a brilliant prodigy. She gave her first piano performance when she was four and published her first composition at the age of 11. At 14, she graduated from high school as valedictorian. Florence studied organ and composition at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. To avoid discrimination, she told others that she was Mexican not African-American. It made interactions easier.
At the age of 19, she graduated and taught music in Atlanta. She married a lawyer, Thomas J. Price and they settled back in Little Rock. In 1927, the lynching of an American-American man, John Carter, led to a wave of mob violence and intense racial unrest. The Price family decided to leave Arkansas as part of the Great Migration, as many African-American citizens left the Deep South. Florence and her family settled in Chicago. She began to take advantage of all the schooling available in that city, studying composition, languages and art.
In 1931, Florence ended her abusive marriage. Suddenly a single-mother, she made ends meet by playing the organ for silent films and writing music for radio advertisements. She lived with friends, including a fellow composer, Margaret Bonds. Through Bonds, Price started friendships with Langston Hughes and vocalist Marian Anderson.
A year later, Florence Price won both first and third prizes in the Wanamaker Foundation Awards for her Symphony in E minor and her Piano Sonata. This led to a performance with the Chicago Symphony, marking the first composition by an African-American woman played by a major orchestra.
Price’s musical style, her voice was connected to African-American melodies, spirituals and rhythms. Many of her pieces were inspired or based on folk tunes, for example Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint and Concert Overture on Negro Spirituals.
A stroke took Florence Price’s life in the 1953. She was 66 years old. After her death, her music fell out of favor. Fortunately, with the dawning of the 21st century there has been a renewed interest in African-American and women composers.
To learn more about Florence Price, check out the book The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price by Rae Linda Brown and follow the Timeline at VPR.org/timeline.