By RON GROSSMAN CHICAGO TRIBUNE | MAR 19, 2021
On June 15, 1933, the flick of a baton turned a page in history. Responding to the conductor’s downbeat, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra made Florence B. Price the first Black female composer to have a full-length work performed by a major orchestra.
Subsequently, Price’s significant achievement was all but forgotten — until the recent discovery of her manuscripts, moldering in an abandoned house 60 miles south of Chicago.
At the groundbreaking concert in 1933, Price was repeatedly called on stage to acknowledge the enthusiastic applause her music received.
Frederick Stock, the CSO music director who helped usher Price into the record books, preferred to supplement the European canon with works by American composers. When he chose Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E minor, he took that commitment to another level.
Reactions in local newspapers were effusive. Robert Abbott, publisher of the Chicago Defender, arguably echoed the sentiments of the newspaper’s African America readership. He was delighted to report that “an aggregation of master musicians of the white race, and directed by Dr. Frederick Stock, internationally known conductor, swung into the beautiful, harmonious strains of a composition by a Race woman.”
Tribune critic Edward Moore wrote that Price’s “symphony displayed high talent, both in what she did and what she omitted. … She knows how to be concise, how to avoid overloading and elaboration. The performance made a well deserved success.”
The Chicago Daily News critic announced: “Price’s symphony is worthy of a place in the regular symphonic repertory.”
Price had validated a prediction made by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak during a visit to the United States. “I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the negro melodies. … These are the product of the soil. They are American,” Dvorak said, according to a 1893 New York Herald story.
White Americans by and large ignored his message.Delayed Chicago Sinfonietta tribute to MLK streams March 28 »
Four decades after Dvorak’s forecasting, Price wove syncopated rhythms and an African drum into her symphony. Yet racism was still an undeniable fact of American life. Price notably set Black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar’s bittersweet words in “Sympathy” to music:
I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing
Price was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1887. Her father was the first Black dentist in town, and her mother was a pianist and Price’s first music teacher. When Price was 4, she made an impression on celebrated virtuoso pianist Blind Boone when he caught her performance at a recital. At 16, she was the valedictorian of her high school graduating class.
Price enrolled in the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, which accepted Black students. It offered the promise of a livelihood: Teaching piano was one of the few professions open to women.
But Price, who was 11 when her first composition was published, was hooked on composing. The director of the conservatory, impressed by a composition she wrote, provided her with a scholarship so she could study in his private studio.
In 1912, she returned to Arkansas, where she married Thomas Price, a successful attorney. Price gave piano lessons and wrote exercise books for young students. She also composed serious music. ’’In The Land of Cotton,” a solo piano piece, took second place in a 1926 competition.
The following year almost brought tragedy to the Price family.
When a multiracial man was accused of killing a white child, white residents in Little Rock vowed retaliation. The lynching of a Black man and rioting followed. The Prices fled Little Rock for Chicago.Flashback: Before Chicago erupted into race riots in 1919, Carl Sandburg reported on the fissures »
Florence Price resumed teaching piano in the family’s new home at 3835 S. Calumet Ave. For her, Chicago’s Black Belt was a musical wonderland. It was dotted with jazz and blues clubs. Gospel music was being born at the nearby Pilgrim Baptist Church. Price played the organ in theaters showing silent movies.
But after the 1929 Wall Street crash, Thomas Price lost his job. He beat Florence Price and threatened to kill her. She grabbed their two daughters, found asylum with a student and divorced him. Despite the chaos, she began working on her first symphony and kept at it while laid up with a fractured foot.
“I found it possible to snatch a few precious days in the month of January in which to write undisturbed,” Price wrote to a friend. “But, oh dear me, when shall I ever be so fortunate again as to break a foot.”
In 1932, she entered the finished symphony in a contest sponsored by a philanthropic foundation that supported Black composers. It won a first prize of $500, or $9,600 in today’s dollars.
The money was a financial lifesaver. And the CSO’s request to perform her symphony was a stamp of approval — but also a burden. Musical scores then had to be copied by hand. It required a group effort, a friend of Price’s told Rae Linda Brown, author of the recently published biography “The Heart of a Woman: The Life And Music of Florence B. Price.”
“During the cold winter nights in Chicago, we used to sit around a large table in our kitchen — manuscript paper strewn around, Florence and I extracting parts,” Margaret Bonds recalled. “We were a God-loving people, and, when we were pushed for time, every brown-skinned musician in Chicago who could write a note, would ‘jump-to’ and help Florence meet her deadline.”
Price’s career took off during the Great Depression, even as the failure of a second marriage left her financially stranded. With her daughters, she moved from one friend’s home to another.From 2013: Chen honors long-neglected composer »
Fortunately President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s prescription for those lean years included paychecks for artists as well as manual workers. The federal government funded a string quartet in Illinois that premiered Price’s “Fantasie Negre” No. 4 in 1937.
In Michigan, it funded a symphony orchestra that, in 1940, performed her Symphony No. 3. Price joined the orchestra to play her piano concerto.
The Detroit Free Press gave her a rave review. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt attended a rehearsal and mentioned Price in her syndicated newspaper column.
The previous year, the first lady sponsored a concert by singer Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial after the Daughters of the American Revolution canceled an engagement at its hall because Anderson, the acclaimed contralto, was Black.
Seventy-five thousand people turned out, and among the songs Anderson performed was Price’s arrangement of the African American spiritual “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord.”
When World War II changed the government’s funding priorities, Price needed to find new venues. She repeatedly wrote Serge Koussevitzky, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s conductor. “To begin with I have two handicaps — those of sex and race,” she said in one of her letters.
In 1951, conductor John Barbirolli asked her to write a piece for the symphony orchestra in Manchester, England. Price had never been abroad, and her daughter intended to take her to England for its premiere.
But on June 3, 1953, Price died of a stroke, and her works dropped out of the symphonic repertoire. She’d written about 300.
In 2009, Vicki and Darrell Gatwood bought a fixer-upper house in St. Anne, Illinois, not knowing it was Price’s summer cottage. Fascinated by the numerous manuscripts they found, they reached out to library at the University of Arkansas, which had a collection of her memorabilia.Juilliard celebrates 32 female composers of the 20th Century »
“It’s a wonder anything survived in that house,” archivist Tim Nutt told a university audience in 2018. “A few papers were mildewed or molded, but for the most part, they were in extraordinarily good condition.”
G. Schirmer, a company that sells sheet music, acquired Price’s catalog. Parents whose children balk at practicing the piano might want to buy one of her beginner’s pieces and say to their children:
“Let me tell you the story of a woman who didn’t let adversity stop her from writing this lesson for kids just like you.”
MAIN IMAGE: Florence Price was the first Black female composer to have a full-length work performed by a major orchestra. (G. Nelidoff / University of Arkansas Libraries)