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A Woman No Longer Obscure

I frequently listen to a public radio station out of Denver, KVOD. They play classical music and often offer bits and pieces of musical history which I enjoy. When I first hear the music of this woman, I was stunned to learn of her background. Why had I never heard of her? The more I heard of her music the more I loved her. She was a prolific composer and quite worthy of note. I felt compelled to share her with you.

Florence Beatrice Smith was born in Little Rock, Arkansas on April 9, 1887. Her father James was a dentist and her mother, Florence was a music teacher, school teacher and businesswoman. Despite the racial tensions of the times, the family did well and was respected within their community.

Her love of music was evident at an early age and was supported by her mother who tutored and guided her. Her first piano performance was at the age of four. She began composing music shortly after this and her first composition was published when she was eleven. At fourteen, she graduated valedictorian of her class at Capital Hill School in Little Rock in 1903.

After graduation she immediately enrolled in the New England Conservator of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. However, even though the Conservatory did admit blacks, she enrolled as “Mexican” to avoid any stigma being a black woman may have carried. She studied composition and counterpoint and while there she wrote her first symphony. She earned degrees an an organist and piano teacher, graduating with a bachelors degree in 1906.

She returned to Arkansas to teach music at various schools where she remained until 1910, when she moved to Atlanta, Georgia, to head the music department at Clark University for two years. In 1912 she married Thomas Jewell Price who was a prominent attorney. The couple had two daughters and one son who died in infancy. During this time Price set up a music studio, taught piano and wrote short pieces for the piano. Despite her impressive credentials, she was denied membership in the Arkansas State Music Teachers Association because of her race.

During the 1920’s racial tensions were worsening in Arkansas, and the Prices moved to Chicago, Illinois in 1927. Here she had more professional opportunities for growth in her field. Her marriage broke down, as she endured financial hardships and both physical and emotional abuse from her husband. They eventually divorced in 1931. She was now a single parent raising two little girls. To make ends meet, she worked as an organist for silent film screenings and composed songs for radio ads under a pen name.

Even though her training was steeped in European tradition, Price's music consists of mostly the American idiom and reveals her Southern roots. She wrote with a vernacular style, using sounds and ideas that fit the reality of urban society. Being deeply religious, she frequently used the music of the African-American church as material for her arrangements. At the urging of her mentor George Whitefield Chadwick, Price began to incorporate elements of African-American spirituals, emphasizing the rhythm and syncopation of the spirituals rather than just using the text. Her melodies were blues-inspired and mixed with more traditional, European Romantic techniques. The weaving of tradition and modernism reflected the way life was for African Americans in large cities at the time.

During this time, Price lived with friends. She eventually moved in with her student and friend, Margaret Bonds, also a black pianist and composer. This friendship connected Price with writer Langston Hughes, and contralto Marian Anderson, both prominent figures in the art world who aided in Price's future success as a composer.She continued her musical studies at the American Conservatory of Music and Chicago Musical College. This was a rich and fulfilling time for her in her musical career. She had firmly established herself as an outstanding teacher, pianist and organist in her community. She began to be widely recognized and published during this time, but eventually fell into relative obscurity and her legacy fell into neglect.

The reasons for the shocking neglect of Price’s legacy are not hard to find. In a 1943 letter (discovered in 2009) to the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, she introduced herself thus: “My dear Dr. Koussevitzky, To begin with I have two handicaps—those of sex and race. I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins.” She plainly saw these factors as obstacles to her career, because she then spoke of Koussevitzky “knowing the worst.” Indeed, she had a difficult time making headway in a culture that defined composers as white, male, and dead. One prominent conductor took up her cause—Frederick Stock, the German-born music director of the Chicago Symphony—but most others ignored her, Koussevitzky included. Only in the past couple of decades have Price’s major works begun to receive recordings and performances, and these are still infrequent.

In 2009, the discovery in an Illinois attic, of dozens of scores of music renewed public interest in the music of Florence Price; piles of musical manuscripts, books, personal papers, and other documents. The name that kept appearing in the materials was that of Florence Price. After the find, it was certified by the University of Arkansas, that yes, this was Florence Price’s music. This cottage where the discovery was made had been her summer home.

Her music combines a rich and romantic symphonic idiom combined with the melodic intimacy and emotional intensity of African American Spirituals. Alex Ross wrote in the New Yorker, her music “deserves to be widely heard.”

In 1964, the Chicago Public Schools named an elementary school after her. In February 2019, the University of Arkansas Honors College held a gala concert honoring Price. That same year the International Florence Price Festival announced that its inaugural gathering celebrating Florence Prices music and legacy would take place at the University of Maryland School of Music in August, 2020.

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