Sunday, January 27, 2008

Florence Price (1887-1953): First Black Woman To Have A Symphony Performed By A Major Orchestra

[Symphony No. 3; Mississippi River Suite; The Oak; The Women's Philharmonic; Apo Hsu, Conductor; Koch 3 75182H1 (2001)]

Audio Sample: Professor Dominique-René de Lerma of Lawrence University has generously made his research on Florence Beatrice Smith Price available to Price was the first African American woman to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra. Marian Anderson was among many singers who used her arrangements of Negro spirituals. Price was born and raised in Little Rock, where her mother, Florence Gulliver Smith, owned a restaurant, and her father, James H. Smith, was the city's only dentist. The child's first piano teacher was her mother.

Dr. De Lerma writes: “In elementary school she was a student of Charlotte Andrews Stephens. Her first work was published when she was 11.” He continues: “In 1903, having graduated from Capitol High School, she entered the New England Conservatory (B.M., 1906, organ and piano performance) studying with Frederick S. Converse and George Whitefield Chadwick (music theory), and Henry M. Dunham (organ), starting to think seriously about composition.”

Price taught for a year at Cotton Plant-Arkadelphia in Arkansas, and served on the faculties of Shorter College (1906-1910) and Atlanta's Clark University (1910-1912), before returning to Little Rock to teach music privately and compose. “In 1912 Florence B. Price married Thomas J. Price, an attorney in Little Rock. Prof. De Lerma tells us: Little Rock had been a comfortable city for Black residents, but racial problems began to develop and she moved with her husband, attorney Thomas J. Price, and their two daughters to Chicago in 1927 or 1928.” The marriage did not endure, and Price and her children found themselves in difficult financial circumstances for several years.

Fantasie Nègre (8:56) is a work which is found on the CD Leonarda 339 (1995). It is performed by Helen Walker-Hill, piano, and Gregory Walker, violin. Walker-Hill describes it: “Composed in 1929, it is her first ambitious work for piano, and combines Negro melodic and rhythmic idioms with classical European forms and techniques, presenting ternary and variation forms in florid fantasia-style. The theme is the spiritual Sinner, Please Don't Let This Harvest Pass.”

The composer turned to competitions as a way to achieve recognition. After numerous submissions her efforts were finally rewarded in 1932 with multiple Wanamaker prizes. Rosalyn Story writes: “In the widely revered Wanamaker Competition in 1932, she won four prizes, including the top prize for a symphonic composition. (It was a banner year for Black women composers: Bonds, Price's student, also competed and won a prize.) Frederick Stock, then conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, presented Price's Symphony in E Minor for the Chicago World's Fair (Century of Progress Exposition) in 1933. It was the first time a symphony written by a Black woman had been performed by a major symphony orchestra.” Critics raved unanimously.

Pianist Althea Waites has recorded works of Florence Price on Black Diamonds: Althea Waites Plays Music by African American Composers, Cambria CD 1097 (1993). The major composition is her Sonata in E Minor (25:14). It was written in 1932 and won a first-place Wanamaker prize in its category. Rae Linda Brown says in the liner notes: “The Sonata is a large-scale, expansive work in the romantic tradition.” Florence Price undertook graduate studies at two schools in Chicago, after she and her family settled there. Prof. De Lerma explains that her marriage came to an end about 1935, forcing her to move in with one of her students, Margaret Allison Bonds, and to support herself as a music teacher, composer, orchestrator and organist.

A second symphony has been lost. Price's Symphony No. 3 in C Minor (29:28) was successfully premiered in 1940 by the Michigan WPA Symphony, conducted by Valter Poole, and has been recorded by The Women's Philharmonic under Apo Hsu, Conductor. The CD is Koch 3 7518 2H1 (2001). Rosalyn Story describes the work: “Composed in the late summer of 1940 when Price was 52 years old, the piece reflects the romantic mood and textures associated with other writers of the time, including the popular Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, and projects the folk pathos of Black southern life.”

Prof. De Lerma reports that the commissions received by Florence B. Price included one from the British conductor now known as Sir John Barbirolli, for a performance in the United Kingdom. The research file gives this information on the death of Florence B. Price: “She died of a stroke in Chicago, 3 June 1953.”

Africana Encyclopedia assesses Price's output as follows: “Price composed over three hundred works, and her songs and arrangements were performed by some of the most admired voices of her day, including Marian Anderson. Her symphonies and chamber works were famous for incorporating the melodies from Negro spirituals, and her work is considered an important part of the New Negro Arts Movement.” Prof. De Lerma has compiled a Works list of hundreds of items, and an extensive Bibliography, both of which are found at the Florence Price page of

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