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Florence Price


About this Artist

Florence Beatrice Smith was born in 1882 in Little Rock, Arkansas. All aspects of her early life disrupted the narratives that are often projected about Black life in the post-Reconstruction South, for she grew up in a culture of affluence. Her talent was acknowledged very early, as evidenced by the presentation of her first recital at the age of four. Florence’s interest in music during these early years extended beyond piano to include lessons in organ and composition. She continued these studies at the New England Conservatory, where she came under the tutelage of acclaimed composer George Chadwick. Though she remained active as a performer, Price did not compose extensively following her graduation in 1906. Instead, she returned to the South, where she worked at two local Black colleges in Arkansas, before joining the faculty at Clark University in Atlanta. But professional and personal achievement was not enough to shield Price and her family from the racial violence that pervaded the South, so in 1927, Florence, her husband Thomas, and their two children moved to Chicago. She immediately began engaging with the extensive ecosystem that had sustained and promoted Black concert music there since the 1890s. It was through organizations like the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM), the Chicago Music Association, and the Sunday musicales held at Estella Bonds’ home that the composer first connected with the Black women who six years later would be instrumental in the Chicago Symphony’s performance of her first symphonic work.

Chicago proved to be a significant ignition point for Price’s creativity, since in the 26 years she resided there, she composed the majority of the 300-plus works attributed to her. Her compositions, when examined within the context of the Renaissance movement, reflected how a generation of Black composers centered themselves musically within the framework of American musical nationalism. Although this is evident throughout much of Price’s œuvre, it is her symphonic works that most directly show alignment with Renaissance-movement ideology, which advanced the notion of a new, more modern form of Black art that reflected the mastery of Eurocentric compositional form while amplifying a representation of African identity using Black folk idioms. Price’s symphonies display this through its melodic references to the spiritual Wade in the Water and her use of rhythmic patterns drawn from the Juba, a Black folk-dance idiom. Spirituals figured heavily in Price’s representations of sonic blackness, and they were central in her amplification of Black historical narratives. But much of Price’s music also spoke to its function and utility within her life as a musician operating within a larger community. One can glean understanding of this through her organ works, which figured heavily into her role as teacher, church musician, and recitalist. She wrote some two dozen works for organ, and they range from short pieces such as Retrospection, written for beginning organ students, to works such as Adoration, which were used for worship services. Large-scale works such as Passacaglia and Fugue and Sonata No. 1 were often programmed on Price’s recitals.

Despite a series of acclaimed performances during the 1930s, Price struggled in fielding interest in her orchestral works beyond the Chicago area. The lingering impact of the Great Depression, as well as the racial and gendered politics of America’s concert scene, stunted her upward mobility as a composer. But she persisted in her work, and, thanks in part to a network of concert artists and music organizations, Price’s solo and chamber repertory was regularly programmed. This group included not only local musicians, but established concert artists like Roland Hayes, Lillian Evanti, Harry T. Burleigh, and Marian Anderson, who debuted many of Price’s songs. It was Anderson who linked Price directly to a larger movement that challenged discriminatory practices in America’s concert halls and to the subsequent Black civil rights movement, when she performed My Soul Is Anchored in the Lord during her historic 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial. However, Price’s sudden death in 1953, shortly before the blossoming of the mid-century Black civil rights movement, leaves questions as to how she and her music would have factored into this movement.

The musical legacy of Florence Price illuminates her place in the larger genealogical lines of Black women musicians, intellectuals, educators, and artisans who served the needs of their communities in ways that reflected ritualized cycles of cultural preservation and progression extending back to their ancestral homeland of Africa.

Adapted from an essay by Dr. Tammy L. Kernodle is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Music at Miami University (Ohio), specializing in African American music.