PRICE, FLORENCE (Florence Beatrice Smith) (1888–1953) Musician, Composer
The first African-American woman to compose a symphony, Florence Price was born Florence Beatrice Smith in Little Rock, Arkansas, on April 9, 1888. She was raised in a middle-class family and received her early instruction in music from her mother, a former schoolteacher. Florence gave her first public performance on the piano at four and had her first composition published at 11. After graduating from high school, Florence Smith attended the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, studying piano, organ, and music composition and theory. She returned to the South once she earned her degree and began teaching music on the college level. In 1912 Smith left her job as head of the music department at Atlanta’s Clark University to marry Little Rock attorney Thomas J. Price. While raising two daughters, she gave private music lessons and began to compose in earnest.
Responding to rising racial tensions in Little Rock, the Price family moved to Chicago in 1927. The culturally rich environment of the city had an enormous infiuence on Florence Price’s musical developments. She became acquainted with many fellow musicians and composers and further studied composition at several area schools, including the American Conservatory of Music and the University of Chicago. Price also gave frequent piano and organ performances and taught lessons. She was a particularly important mentor to student Margaret Bonds, who later became a noted composer in her own right.
Living in Chicago, Price also developed contacts with music publishers. They published many of her works, having noteworthy success with her short piano pieces for beginning students. Also in demand were her songs, which often drew on African-American folk material, especially the rhythms of black spirituals. Price’s popular songs included My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord and Songs to a Dark Virgin; the latter was set to a poem by her acquaintance Langston Hughes. African-American singers such as MARIAN ANDERSON and LEONTYNE PRICE often sang Price’s works in concert. Price also gained a reputation for her longer, symphonic works, many of which won major music awards. In 1932, four of her works, including Symphony in E Minor, won prizes at the Wanamaker Competition. The next year, her award-winning symphony was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Chicago World’s Fair. Some of Price’s other works were subsequently performed by orchestras in New York, Detroit, and Pittsburgh. Price continued to perform, compose, and teach until her death from a stroke on June 3, 1953. Although in her lifetime she was largely unknown outside of the Chicago area, today she is considered one of the outstanding African American musicians and composers of the 20th century.
Friedberg, Ruth C. “Price, Florence B.” In American National Biography, edited by John Arthur Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, vol. 17, pp. 858–859. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Green, Mildred Denby. Black Women Composers: A Genesis. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983.
Jackson, Barbara Garvey. “Florence Price: Composer.” The Black Perspective in Music 5 (spring 1977), 30–43.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Black Diamonds: Althea Waites Plays Piano Music by African American Composers. Cambria Records, CD, 1993.
The Negro Speaks of Rivers: Art Songs by African-American Composers. Musicians Showcase, CD, 2000.