Black History Month: The Musical Legacy of Florence Price

Posted by on Feb 2, 2024 in People and Culture, Stuff You Should Know

In 1933 Florence Price made history. Her symphony was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. For an African American female composer, this was a first. While Price gained some fame from the accomplishment, her career in music was impacted by racism and sexism. The significant contributions of women and of African Americans in classical music have often been overlooked.

Price grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. She graduated from high school as valedictorian at age 14. She graduated from the New England Conservatory in 1906 with a degree in organ and music education. Price then moved to Atlanta and was hired as the head of the music department at Clark Atlanta University, a Historically Black College and University.

The Great Migration North

Price married in 1912 and returned with her husband to Little Rock, where they lived until moving to Chicago in 1927. The move to Chicago occurred during the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to New York, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and other industrial cities in the North. Many African Americans moved north for industrial job opportunities and to escape the segregation and racism that was widespread in the South.

The Chicago Black Renaissance

In the 1920s, African American artists, writers, and musicians created new works of art reflecting their cultural experiences, a period known as the Harlem Renaissance. A similar artistic movement started in 1930s Chicago called the Chicago Black Renaissance. In Chicago, Price continued studying music and began composing her own music. She collaborated with some of the leading musicians and composers in the city. Price became friends with other African American artists and musicians of this period, including pianist Margaret Bonds, writer Langston Hughes, and singer Marian Anderson. Also, in 1931, she divorced her husband and began raising their children as a single parent.

A First for Female African American Composers

In 1932 Price’s Symphony in E Minor won a contest for musical compositions. On June 15, 1933, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed the piece. The performance made history as the first major American orchestra to perform a symphony composed by an African American female. Price wrote other works in many musical styles, including symphonies, piano concertos, compositions for organ, art songs (for one voice and piano), and arrangements for traditional spirituals.

Marian Anderson included several of Price’s arrangements of spirituals in her performances. This enhanced Price’s reputation. Anderson’s fame increased in the 1930s as she performed in the United States and Europe. On Easter Sunday in 1939, Anderson performed a concert at the Lincoln Memorial before a crowd of 75,000 people. The final song on the program was Price’s arrangement of “My Soul is Anchored in the Lord.”

In 1940, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra performed Price’s Symphony No. 3 in C Minor. Price continued working until her death in 1953. While she attained some fame during her lifetime, her work largely faded from popularity after her death.

Discovery of Lost Works

In 2009, however, a large collection of her work was discovered in an abandoned house in St. Anne, Illinois, that Price used as a summer home. The discovered works helped to define Price’s contribution to American music.

Today Price’s compositions have been popularized by pianists Karen Walwyn and Lara Downes. Her symphonic works have returned to the programs of modern orchestras. After decades of obscurity, Florence Price is again recognized for her musical accomplishments.

Dig Deeper Try to locate a recording of one of Florence Price’s works. What is your reaction to the music?