Saturday, April 9, 2011

Florence B. Price, First African American Woman Composer With Symphony Played by Major Orchestra, Born April 9, 1887

[Florence B. Price (1887-1953)]

Florence Beatrice Smith Price was born April 9, 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas. She is best known for her many vocal works and because she was the first African American woman to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra. Prof. Dominique-René de Lerma of Lawrence University Conservatory is a specialist in African heritage in classical music, and has kindly made his research and Works List for Florence B. Price available to He says Florence Price was “Born in Little Rock, where at the age of four she played in her first piano recital under her mother's guidance.”

Prof. De Lerma continues: “In elementary school she was a student of Charlotte Andrews Stephens. Her first work was published when she was 11.” Prof. De Lerma relates that Florence Price studied music theory, piano performance and organ performance at the New England Conservatory of Music, and began to consider composition as well. Price taught at three schools from 1906-1910, then moved to Chicago with her new husband. The marriage did not last, and Price soon found herself a single parent of small children. At one point she found it necessary to move in with Margaret Bonds, one of her students.

Prof. De Lerma 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.”

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). Florence Price arranged spirituals for vocalists and also incorporated them in instrumental works. Musicologist Helen Walker-Hill says of Price's Fantasie Nègre: “The theme is the spiritual Sinner, Please Don't Let This Harvest Pass.

Both performances and recordings of the compositions of Florence Price have become more numerous in the past few years. For example, Prof. Claire Detels performed Price's Sonata in E Minor, in March 2010. The Center for Black Music Research recently received some forgotten manuscripts, and is in the process of producing the first commercial recording of the Symphony No. 1 in E Minor. The latest discoveries have prompted Suzanne Flandreau, Head Librarian and Archivist of the Center for Black Music Research, to say: “So let’s hear it for Florence Price, who really is the gutsy and substantial composer that everyone thought she would be.

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