Monday, April 8, 2013

Florence B. Price, Born April 9, 1887, Was First African American Woman Composer To Have A Symphony Performed By A Major Orchestra

Florence B. Price: Concerto in One Movement and Symphony in E Minor
Recorded Music of the African Diaspora, Vol. 3
 CBMR/Albany Records TROY1295 (2011)

Florence B. Price was born on April 9, 1887. Professor Dominique-René de Lerma,, has generously made his research on her available to 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 Black 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 a time.

A blog post in Women's Voices For Change on March 8, 2013 adds some details of the personal life of Florence B. Price:  “It was between the ending of the first marriage and the beginning of the new one that Florence fine-tuned her groundbreaking composition, Symphony in E Minor.” The post identifies the composer's second husband as Pusey Dell Arnett. Florence Price kept the name by which she was known professionally when she remarried; an unusual choicp at the time.

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.

The Center for Black Music Research and Albany Records jointly released a CD, TROY 1295 (2011), featuring Price's Symphony in E Minor and and her Concerto in One Movement for piano (1934). Karen Walwyn is pianist and Leslie Dunner conducts the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble. The liner notes for TROY1295 (2011) are by Horace J. Maxile, Jr., Associate Director of Research, Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago:

“Price's Concerto in One Movement for piano was premiered in Chicago in 1934 with Price herself as pianist. The premiere was followed by another performance in Chicago by the Woman's Symphony of Chicago, with Price's student Margaret Bonds as soloist. There is no evidence of the piece being performed after the 1930s and, at present, there are no copies of the composer's manuscript of the orchestral score. Therefore, to revive this deserving work, the Center for Black Music Research commissioned composer Trevor Weston to reconstruct the concerto's orchestration, which was premiered in Chicago on February 17, 2011, by the Center's New Black Music Repertory Ensemble, with Karen Walwyn as pianist.”

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