This week, our featured musician is someone who not only was a great composer in her own right, but was the music teacher of a previously featured History Hunt composer, Margaret Allison Bonds. She also happens to share a birthday with me!
Florence Beatrice Price (birth name: Florence Beatrice Smith) was born on April 9, 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas. While her father wasn’t a musician, her mother was–on top of her other work, she taught piano lessons to various students, including her little daughter. And she started early: Price’s first public performance was when she was just four years old.
At eleven years old, Price reached another milestone long before most, through becoming a published composer (though it wasn’t until she was sixteen that she actually was paid for her work). On top of that, she graduated from high school when she was only fourteen, and as valedictorian, no less!
After she graduated, Price went to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts to continue her studies. At this time in the United States, a lot of the progress that had been made to ensure African-Americans were treated equally was being undone, both in laws and in everyday life. So, to be sure Price could go to the best school for her abilities, her mother wrote down on the application form that Price was from Pueblo, Mexico. Though there was a great deal of prejudice against Mexicans in the United States, Price’s mother believed being seen as Mexican instead of African-American would increase Price’s chances of being accepted as a student.
Price’s mother was right to worry about her daughter: while Price loved performing and composing, her real dream was to become a doctor. However, the odds against not only a woman, but an African-American one, fulfilling this dream were so high that Price decided to use her gift for music instead.
While it seems Price might have written a symphony while studying in Boston, sadly, as is the case with much of her work, the music for this symphony is lost. We do know, however, that Price graduated when she was only nineteen with degrees in both organ performance and music education with a focus on piano. She moved back to her hometown and set up shop as a piano teacher at first Cotton Plant–Arkadelphia Academy and then, a year later, Shorter College. And in 1910, when she was twenty-three, she moved to Atlanta, Georgia, and became head of the music department at Clark University.
After she married in 1912, Price taught privately and composed. During this period, she applied to join the Arkansas State Music Teachers Association–but due to racist leadership, her application was rejected.
As time went on, life became increasingly dangerous for African-Americans living in Arkansas and other southern states. Because of this, Price and her family moved to Chicago, Illinois, where prejudice was somewhat less. There, Price had the opportunity to continue her studies and did so, at not one, not two, but six different universities!
She also began publishing more music. In 1928, she received a prize and the right to publish her work At the Cotton Gin (which must have come as a surprise to her, because her husband secretly sent in the work) and she also got a contract with a different publisher to release music to help beginning pianists learn.
She spent a while living with her student, Margaret Allison Bonds, and during that time, she composed music for radio ads, played organ for silent films, and composed pop music under the name Vee Jay. When she broke her foot in 1931, Price wasn’t upset–in fact, she thought it was a stroke of excellent luck. At last, she could work on the symphony she carried in her head!
It was this work, Symphony in E Minor, as well as her Piano Sonata in E Minor, that brought her both fame and fortune when she published them. Suddenly, Price was winning prizes for her compositions–with a little help from Bonds, who would spend hours helping her copy music by hand to submit to competitions. And with this symphony Price broke a major barrier: she became the first black woman to have her music performed by a major orchestra. In this case, it was the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the critics who heard Price’s music praised it universally.
That wasn’t the only orchestra to play her music, either. Soon, orchestras in Michigan and Pennsylvania were performing her work, as well as multiple orchestras in both Chicago and New York. Later, her music was even played by orchestras in Europe. And Marian Anderson, another History Hunt musician, performed one of Price’s vocal pieces during her famous White House concert in 1939.
For the rest of her life, Price continued teaching and composing. She was a proud member of the Chicago Club of Women Organists, whose other members were equally proud to play Price’s compositions. Even if her truest dream was not music, Price lived a rich, rewarding life.
Sadly, nowadays, it can be very difficult to track down recordings of Price’s compositions. Though she wrote over three hundred pieces in her lifetime, many of her works have been lost, and most are out of print. I can only hope that someday, her music will be both easy to find and well known by everyone.
Below is the third movement of Price’s Symphony in C Minor, as performed by The Women’s Philharmonic:
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To Learn More (Sources):
Florence Price, Composer, by Barbara Garvey Jackson
Florence Beatrice Smith Price at the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture
Florence Beatrice Price at Biography.com
Florence Beatrice Price at AfriClassical.com
MUSA 19 – Florence Price at Music of the United States of America
Price, Florence Beatrice Smith at BlackPast.org
Sounds Heard: Florence B. Price—Concerto in One Movement; Symphony in E Minor by Frank J. Oteri
Screening of Florence Price documentary featured at Nov. 5 SAU Mallory Lecture at Southern Arkansas University (image source)