Florence Beatrice Price was the first African American woman to have her work performed by a major American orchestra. During our American Expressions Festival this month, the Minnesota Orchestra performs her First Symphony, the piece that first put her on the map as a great American composer.
In a New York Times story, musicologist Douglas Shadle noted that “Our understanding of American modernism of the 1930s and 1940s is not complete without Price’s contribution.”
Price was born in on April 9, 1887, to a mixed-race family in Little Rock, Arkansas. The daughter of a music teacher and a dentist, she excelled early both academically and musically, attending the New England Conservatory by the age of 14 to study piano, organ and composition.
Becoming the First of a Kind
Premiered by the Chicago Symphony in 1933 as part of the Chicago World’s Fair, Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E minor inspired immediate praise and became the first symphony by an African American woman ever performed by a major American orchestra. The Chicago Daily News, Chicago Herald & Examiner, Chicago Defender and Music News all lauded Price’s symphony, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt highlighted the premiere in her national newspaper column, My Day.
Price’s musical language is often compared to that of Antonín Dvořák and is said to have influences of black British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s music. Indeed, all three explored various “folk” music as inspiration for their melodies, rhythms and musical forms. In Price’s First Symphony, the songful, simple and gently-syncopated themes of the opening movement clearly bear that character, as do the hopping, turning, hand-clapping, thigh-slapping and foot-stomping rhythms in the juba dance of the third movement.
And Now A Resurgence
Despite enthusiastic reception, Price’s music slowly slipped from public consciousness, for reasons quite clear to the composer herself. In July 1943, Price wrote to Serge Koussevitzky, then-conductor of the Boston Symphony, confidently describing her own “two handicaps – those of sex and race."
Following her death in 1953, Price’s music fell into obscurity in the U.S., even as it gained recognition in Canada and Europe. Only at the beginning of the 21st century has public interest accelerated in the United States. American orchestras are programming and recording her works more frequently, critical editions of the first and third symphonies were created in 2008 by musicologists Rae Linda Brown and Wayne Shirley, and in 2009 a newly-discovered collection of Price’s manuscripts—including two of her violin concertos which have since seen been performed and recorded—caught the attention of musical media outlets across the nation.
“Florence Price is a representation in music of what it means to be a black artist living within a white canon and trying to work within the classical realm,” says Marquese Carter, a doctoral student at Indiana University, as quoted in The New York Times.
Price’s music will see a total of ten performances by the Minnesota Orchestra this year. In addition to the January 12 and 13 concerts, the complete First Symphony will be performed at Symphonic Adventures concerts in January and February, and selected movements will be played at Young People’s and Family Concerts in May 2019.
The Minnesota Orchestra thanks Brian Edward Dowdy for contributing to this story. Dowdy conducted the Minnesota Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1 on Saturday, November 3, 2018, at Ted Mann Concert Hall in Minneapolis. For more information, visit mnphil.org.