Sunday, September 2, 2018

Arkansas Times: Florence Price stepped across the threshold of progress. With a broken foot.


POSTHUMOUSLY HONORED: Florence Price is among the 2018 inductees to the Arkansas Women's Hall of Fame.                          

Arkansas Times
August 30, 2018
By Kally Patz

'Injury a help'
In 1932, Florence Beatrice Price broke her foot and composed the work that would define her career: a four-movement symphony with parts for two flutes, two piccolos, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, a tuba, a timpani, percussion and strings — a full orchestra, though at that time no major orchestra in the United States had performed a piece by a black woman.

The work, "Symphony in E Minor," was to become inseparable from Price's reputation as a pioneer among black woman composers, a legacy for which she will be honored Thursday evening by the Arkansas Women's Hall of Fame in a ceremony at the Statehouse Convention Center.

When Price began "Symphony in E Minor," she was completely unknown outside her circle in Chicago. She had recently left her husband, who had turned abusive, and her home in Little Rock, where a brutal lynching had left her traumatized five years before. At the time of the broken foot, Price was living with her two daughters at the home of her 18-year-old student, Margaret Bonds. For one month, the two women sat at the kitchen table, Price composing, her pupil extracting parts for each instrument to copy onto separate pieces of paper.

Nine months later, when the winners of the Rodman Wanamaker Contest in Musical Composition for African-American composers were announced, newspapers described the results as if a once-in-a-century meteor had dropped to earth. Florence Price had won not only first place in the competition's most prestigious category for her symphony, but also honorable mention in that category, first place in a different category, and honorable mention in that category as well. Even in the song category, which she'd not entered, she had, in a sense, won: Bonds, her student, had taken first place.

One headline read "$750 CASH PRIZES THE RESULT OF INJURY — 2 WOMEN GET ALL THE CASH GIVEN IN MUSIC CONTEST — INJURY A HELP," brushing aside Price's and Bonds' victories as anomalies, events that were to be accepted as inexplicable and unlikely to occur again anytime soon.

When "Symphony in E Minor" was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at a World's Fair Exposition with the motto "Century of Progress" the following summer, it was billed as "the first work in this form by a Negro woman composer," proof of progress on par with the first rotor capable of harnessing wind energy and a prototype for gluten-free bread. The authors of the program were, apparently, oblivious to the irony of presenting a black woman composer as a symbol of progress at a fair where restaurants refused service to black customers and women were summarily ignored.                  

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