Monday, March 14, 2011

Columbia Chronicle: 'Florence Price reborn; Local composer’s work found after more than 70 years'

[Florence B. Price and Manuscript]

Published 03-14-11
Written by Vanessa Morton
Edited by Brianna Wellen
“Suzanne Flandreau unexpectedly stumbled upon two original music manuscripts by the late African-American symphonic composer Florence Price more than 10 years ago. The orchestral score 'Piano Concerto in One Movement'—last performed in the 1930s—was believed to be missing for many years. It wasn’t until Feb. 17 that the two pieces found a contemporary audience. Columbia’s Center for Black Music Research’s event at Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph St., called 'Black Prism: Concert Works by African-American Composers' featured her work. Included in the program was Price’s first symphony, 'Symphony in E Minor,' along with the world premiere of a new adaptation of her piano concerto. Both compositions will be recorded on a CD by CBMR this month.

“'The performance was historically significant because the piano concerto hadn’t been heard in [more than] 70 years,' said Horace Maxile, associate director of research at the CBMR. Price grew up in a family where education and the arts were valued, which led to her enrollment at the New England Conservatory of Music. There, she studied music theory and composition, contributing to her historical importance, according to Maxile. He said most black musicians during that time were performers. According to Maxile, Price’s desire to compose instead of sing was unique as was her prolific output.

“Before Price left for Chicago in 1927, she taught music at many different schools in Little Rock, Ark. After her move spurred by racial issues, including lynching, she gained international fame as a composer. Flandreau, head librarian and archivist at the CBMR, said Chicago opened up great opportunities for Price. She continued to study at schools like the Chicago Musical College, the American Conservatory and University of Chicago. In the ’30s and ’40s, the Chicago Renaissance provided black musicians and composers an opportunity to perform their music.

“According to Flandreau, Price’s music could be heard regularly in local black churches. Despite a growing local reputation, Price didn’t get her big break until 1932, when she won first prize in the Rodman Wanamaker Music Composition Contest for her 'Symphony in E Minor.' This led to the symphony being performed in Chicago during the summer of 1933 at the World’s Fair Century of Progress Exhibition—also broadcast on the radio—which brought her music national recognition. Price’s critically acclaimed composition was the first symphony composed by a black woman to be played by a major American orchestra.

“'I picture her after that being this quiet and authoritative presence not only in black or classical music but in general,' Flandreau said. 'At that point, a woman couldn’t even play in symphony orchestras.' Price is thought to have composed more than 200 original music pieces before her death in 1953. It wasn’t easy for Price to get her music published and recorded, resulting in many of her works being undocumented and lost. Flandreau explained that at the time, it was unlikely for any black musician to have the opportunity to record his or her music. She said Price had more recordings than most black composers, but it was relatively little.

“Looking back, Flandreau said she can’t believe how lucky she was to unearth a piece of missing history, recalling it as 'a heart attack moment.' 'One day a padded envelope came in, so I opened it. Inside were two Florence Price manuscripts,' she said. 'My jaw dropped because it was totally unexpected.' The piano concerto reconstruction began more than a year ago when the CBMR signed a recording contract with Albany Records to do a CD series called 'Recorded Music of the African Diaspora.'

“'[Last year], we finally decided on a recording series and thought about doing a Florence Price recording because “Symphony in E Minor” had never been recorded,' Flandreau said. According to deputy director of the CBMR, Morris Phibbs, it was important to the CBMR to reconstruct the priceless find. He said the CBMR plans to start recording in March and the project will take about six months to finish. The CD will be available for purchase. 'These works simply need to get out there because it’s important that what she did doesn’t get lost,' Phibbs said. 'It deserves to be heard and not forgotten.'” [Florence Beatrice Smith Price (1887-1953) is profiled at, which features a complete Works List by Prof. Dominique-René de Lerma of Lawrence University Conservatory.]

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