Florence Beatrice Price was an American composer of the first half of the twentieth century, and was the first African-American woman to have her work played by a major symphony orchestra. Born Florence Smith in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1887, she attended the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where she studied organ and piano. While there, she claimed to be Mexican to avoid racial discrimination. After graduating (with honors), she returned to Arkansas and married. But to escape from racial violence in the south, the family moved to Chicago in the late 1920s, as part of the Great Migration of African-Americans to northern cities.
In Chicago, she continued her study of composition, and she began to achieve success with her works. Her piano piece, Fantasie negre no. 1, was premiered by her friend Margaret Bond at the annual convention of the National Association of Negro Musicians, and was very well received. Her works soon began to achieve national recognition. In 1932, she won first prize at the Wanamaker Foundation Awards for her first symphony. This symphony was later performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, at a concert dedicated to the works of black American composers. Later in the ’30s, the Works Progress Administration organized several concerts of her work by major orchestras.
Price’s style was very much part of the European musical tradition, but traditional African-American folk music exerted a large influence, and in many cases she explicitly incorporated spirituals into her works. In this way, she can be compared to many 19th and early 20th century European composers, like Dvorak or Sibelius or Bartok, who proudly incorporated the folk traditions of their homelands into the received western style, which had historically been dominated by Italian and German music.
Price was abused by her husband, and they divorced in 1931, making her a single mother of two daughters. Her “serious” composition not bringing in nearly enough to make ends meet, she worked as a movie theater organist and wrote radio jingles.
Though she was inducted into the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers in 1940, Price’s music failed to enter the canon of American “classical” music, in large part because it had been relegated to the niche of “negro music”. However, in recent years her work has seen a major revival, fueled in part by the 2009 discovery of a trove of her unpublished scores in an abandoned house.
Here is Samantha Ege playing Price’s gorgeous Fantasie negre no. 2:
And here is the third movement of her first symphony, a delightful take on the traditional symphonic scherzo that draws inspiration from the African-American Juba dance or hambone: