Photo from university of Arkansas archive library
Florence Beatrice Smith Price
She is an award-winning pianist and composer who became the first African-American woman in the United States to be to have her work performed by a major symphony and to be recognized nationally for her accomplishments. She has written 300 compositions.
Florence was born 1887, as a child, Smith received musical instruction from her mother a soprano and pianist who guided her early music education; she published musical pieces while in high school. She attended Capitol Hill School in Little Rock, graduating as valedictorian in 1903. Florence at age 14 then studied piano and organ at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, which was a notable achievement for a black woman at that time. In 1907, she received degrees as an organist and as a piano teacher.
After graduation, Smith returned to Arkansas to teach music at the Cotton Plant–Arkadelphia Academy in Cotton Plant, Woodruff County. She left Cotton Plant after only one year, however, to teach at Shorter College in North Little Rock Pulaski County), where she remained until 1910. In that year, however, Smith moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where she was head of the music department at Clark University until 1912.
There she met and married Mr. Thomas J. Price an attorney in 1912. Price established a music studio, taught piano lessons, and wrote short pieces for piano. Despite her credentials, she was denied membership into the Arkansas State Music Teachers Association because of her race.
After a series of racial incidents in Little Rock, particularly a lynching that took place in 1927, the family moved to Chicago where Price began a new and fulfilling period in her compositional career. She studied composition, orchestration, and organ with the leading teachers in the city including Arthur Olaf Anderson, Carl Busch, Wesley La Violette, and Leo Sowerby and published four pieces for piano in 1928. While in Chicago Price was at various times enrolled at the Chicago Musical College, Chicago Teacher’s College, and American Conservatory of Music, studying languages and liberal arts subjects as well as music.
Her friendship with the young composer, Margaret Bonds, resulted in a great pairing of minds and talent. They began to achieve national recognition for their compositions and performances. In 1932, both women submitted compositions for the Wanamaker Foundation Awards. Price won first and second place with her Symphony in E minor, and for her Piano Sonata. Bonds came in first place in the song category, with a song entitled Sea Ghost. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Frederick Stock, premiered the winning composition, Symphony in EMinor on June 15, 1933. The work of this Symphony in E Minor by her was later performed at the Chicago World’s Fair as part of the Century of Progress Exhibition. The song was played by the following sets: orchestras of Detroit, Michigan; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Brooklyn, New York, performed subsequent symphonic works by Price.
This was the first time a black woman had presented her work on such a stage. In this regard, A number of Florence’s other orchestral works were also played by the WPA Symphony Orchestra of Detroit and the Chicago Women’s Symphony. Florence wrote other extended works for orchestra, chamber works, art songs, and works for violin, organ anthems, piano pieces, spiritual arrangements, four symphonies, three piano concertos, and a violin concerto. Some of her more popular works are: Three Little Negro Dances, Songs to a Dark Virgin, My Soul’s Been Anchored in de Lord for piano or orchestra and voice, and Moon Bridge. Price made considerable use of characteristic black melodies and rhythms in many of her works. Her “Concert Overture on Negro Spirituals,” “Symphony in E minor,” and “Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint” for string quartet, all serve as excellent examples of her idiomatic work. This national and international recognition made her more popular back home, and in 1935, the Alumni Association of Philander Smith College in Little Rock sponsored Price’s return to Arkansas, billing her as “noted musician of Chicago” and presenting her in a concert of her own compositions at Dunbar High School.
Deeply religious, Price frequently used the music of the black church as material for her arrangements. In 1949, Price published two of her spiritual arrangements, “I Am Bound for the Kingdom,” and “I’m Workin’ on My Buildin’,” and dedicated them to the black contralto Marian Anderson, who performed them on a regular basis. In her lifetime, Price composed more than 300 composition works, ranging from small teaching pieces for piano to large-scale compositions such as symphonies and concertos, as well as instrumental chamber music, vocal compositions, and music for radio. Her musical style is a mixture of classical European music and the sounds of black spirituals, especially the rhythms associated with African heritage, such as the juba dance. Price’s southern heritage had an obvious impact on her work, as the titles for some of her shorter works suggest: Arkansas Jitter, Bayou Dance, and Dance of the Cotton Blossoms.
Florence B. Price died from a stroke in Chicago on June 3, 1953, while planning a trip to Europe. Her materials are held within the Special Collections of the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, presented in 1974 by daughter Florence Price Robinson, and at the Library of Congress. Included in the Arkansas collections is correspondence with and from John Alden Carpenter, Roland Hayes, Eugene Goossens, Harry Burleigh, and others. Marian Anderson during her funeral sang the spiritual songs price had dedicated to her. In 1964, a Chicago elementary school took her name as its own in recognition of her legacy as both a Chicago musician and an important black composer. Many of Price’s compositions were lost. Yet over time, as the work of African-American and female composers began to receive proper attention, her repertoire received new recognition.
In 2001, The Women’s Philharmonic issued an album of Price’s work, and a recording of her “Concerto in One Movement” and “Symphony in E Minor” was released in December of 2011, performed by pianist Karen Walwyn and the New Black Repertory Ensemble.
The Chicago Elementary School has renamed the school in her honor of her as the Florence B. Price Elementary School.