Florence Beatrice Price (1887-1953) was born in a racially-integrated community in Little Rock, Arkansas. Her mother was a school teacher and her father, the city’s only black dentist. At the age of four, she played in her first piano recital and her first composition was published at the age of eleven. After graduating as high school valedictorian at age 14, she waited 3 more years before setting out for the New England Conservatory to pursue a double major in organ and piano performance. At NEC she studied theory with George Chadwick , and began to think seriously about composing. Upon graduating she took several teaching jobs, winding her way through Arkansas and Georgia before coming back to Little Rock to compose and teach privately.
Little Rock was very segregated then, and Price was refused admission to the all-white Arkansas Music Teachers Association. She founded the Little Rock Club of Musicians and taught music at the segregated black schools, but as lynchings became more frequent, she moved her family to Chicago in 1927. A year later, as her professional life was taking off and music was getting published, she divorced her husband and moved in with her student and friend, Margaret Bonds (another composer featured here on this blog).
Eventually, Price joined the R. Nathaniel Dett Club of Music and the Allied Arts and did additional study at the American Conservatory of Music, Chicago Teachers College, Central YMCA College, the University of Chicago and Chicago Musical College (now Chicago College of Performing Arts of Roosevelt University) as a student in composition and orchestration with Carl Busch, graduating in 1934. She eventually composed more than 300 works including symphonies, organ works, piano concertos, works for violin, arrangements of spirituals, art songs, and chamber works. Her pop songs were composed under the pseudonym “Vee Jay”
Florence Price became friends with Marian Anderson, composers William L. Dawson of Tuskegee Institute, Will Marion Cook, Abbie Mitchell, Langston Hughes and many others.
She continued to compose throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, penning two concertos for violin and orchestra, two additional symphonies, one of which, Symphony No. 2, has apparently been lost. She gained recognition from as far away as England where conductor Sir John Barbirolli commissioned her to compose a suite for string instruments which had its premiere with the famed Hallé Orchestra in Manchester. However, she still had so many obstacles placed in her way, as evidenced by a letter to Koussevitsky in 1943:
“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.” Frederick Stock, the German-born music director of the Chicago Symphony, took up her cause—but most others ignored her, Koussevitzky included.
In 2010 the Center for Black Music Research commissioned Trevor Weston, an associate professor of music at Drew University, to reconstruct the long-lost orchestral score for Price’s Concerto in One Movement for Piano and Orchestra in order to perform the concerto and release an album of the composer’s work which would become the third issue in the CBMR series, “Recorded Music of the African Diaspora.”
In 2009, a couple was renovating an abandoned house in St. Anne IL where they found boxes of musical scores. It turns out this had been her summer home, and in the boxes contained the scores to the (until then) lost violin concerti. They contacted the University of Arkansas, where Price’s materials are held within the Special Collections. Other holdings are at the Library of Congress. Included in the Arkansas collections is correspondence to and from John Alden Carpenter, Roland Hayes, Eugène Goossens, Harry T. Burleigh, and others.
Concerto in One Movement