FlorencePriceIn 1933, at the Chicago Auditorium Theater, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra played the world premiere of Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, by Florence Beatrice Price. For Florence, it was a monumental moment.  For the country, it was a historic moment—the first time that a major U.S. orchestra played a symphony by an African-American woman composer.

The premiere of her piece catapulted Florence into the spotlight, but her earlier career—and even her career from that triumphant point on—was anything but an easy fight. In fact, she continued to wage an uphill battle—a battle much larger than any war that pure talent and musical skill could win. It was a battle in which the entire nation was embroiled—a dangerous mélange of segregation, Jim Crow laws, entrenched racism, and sexism.

Florence Beatrice Smith, born in 1887, grew up in an affluent and integrated African-American community in Little Rock, Arkansas. She gave her first piano performance at the age of 4. Her mother, Florence Gulliver, was a piano teacher; her father, James Smith, was a well-respected and successful dentist who catered to both white and black clients. In many ways, her childhood was sheltered from the hurdles most African-Americans had to face at the turn of the 20th century. Florence grew up in a household where the love of art, literature, and classical music was considered a normal part of a child’s upbringing.

After graduating from high school as valedictorian at age 14, Florence left Little Rock in 1904 for the New England Conservatory of Music, one of the more prestigious institutions of music in the United States. By that time she was already a published composer. It was expected that she too would become a piano teacher like her mother and many  good middle-class, educated ladies.

Florence, of course, had other plans. She dreamed bigger. Away from her family, on her own as a young, single, black woman, she knew she had to work ten times harder than her white male counterparts. And she did. She double-majored in piano and pedagogy. She was the only student, out of a class of 2,000, who pursued two degrees. The program was rigorous—so rigorous that Florence was one of only 58 students who actually graduated. But she had been keeping a secret.  Her mother, who was all too familiar with the obstacles a black woman faced, advised Florence to represent herself as being of Mexican descent. Florence acquiesced.

Having gone through a sort of rite of passage via the conservatory, the newly minted graduate returned to Little Rock in 1906.  But her return met a rapidly changing racial landscape in Arkansas and an even more tumultuous time in America’s history. The integrated community Florence had grown up in was no more. Segregation was the new law and the new norm.

But Florence was in need of a job and opportunities to perform. She looked desperately for avenues to do so. When certain houses of music wouldn’t open themselves up to her, she decided to build her own. For example, she created the Little Rock Club of Musicians in response to being rejected by the Arkansas Music Teachers’ Association, an all-white group. She would spend the next few years taking on various jobs teaching music at neighboring black schools, since white schools consistently shunned her. From 1908 to 1910, Florence lived in Atlanta, Georgia, heading up the music department at Clark University; she would become pivotal to the university’s creation of its glee clubs, which are now widely respected.

No longer a teenager, no longer a new graduate looking for work, Florence was in her mid-twenties and in love with Thomas Price, a lawyer living in Little Rock. They were married in 1912 and had two daughters.

But in 1927, Florence catapulted into another chapter in her life, personally and professionally. An incident involving the death of a white child, allegedly by the hands of a black man, sent the segregated Little Rock community into a tailspin. They looked for retribution; they wanted a black child killed. That was this final straw that forced Florence to leave Arkansas with her children and move to Chicago.

Although she ran to Chicago out of fear for the safety of her family, it was this city that would give Florence her monumental first—the world premiere of her symphony. Florence flourished in Chicago. She joined the National Association of Negro Musicians. It was in this group that she met several emerging musicians, like the young Marian Anderson, who would herself go on to break many racial barriers and play a major role in Florence’s career.

However, as Florence evolved professionally in Chicago, her personal life crumbled. The Depression hit and left many Chicagoans in dire despair, including Florence’s husband. He could not find work. The financial stresses bled her marriage, and Thomas became abusive. After 15 years of marriage, Florence filed for divorce. In 1930s America, this was a bold move for a woman, white or black. To provide for her family, she would soon echo her mother’s role and offer music lessons in her home. Florence didn’t mourn Thomas much, or at least for too long. She soon married Pusey Dell Arnett. But, in another bold move for her time, she kept the Price name. She was known professionally as Florence Price. That wasn’t going to change.

It was between the ending of the first marriage and the beginning of the new one that Florence fine-tuned her groundbreaking composition, Symphony in E Minor—evidence of the old adage that when one door closes, another opens. In 1932, the piece won the esteemed  Wanamaker Prize. When Frederick Stock, the German director of music for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, heard Florence’s composition, it was a moment of blissful serendipity. He had been looking for a piece that would be the definitive performance for a concert called the “The Negro in Music” at the Chicago World’s Fair. And so, on the evening of June 15, 1933 in Chicago, Illinois, an all-white male orchestra, led by a German conductor, played music composed by a 46-year-old black woman—a breakthrough thanks to Florence Beatrice Price. (Hear excerpts from her symphony, recorded in 2011 by the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble, here.)

Unfortunately, Florence died of a stroke in Chicago in 1953, at the young age of 66. Yet, throughout the course of her career, she wrote over 300 compositions with many of her works performed by acclaimed singers such as Marian Anderson. She is now globally renowned as a classical music icon and an accomplished composer.

For a retrospective on Price’s work, including excerpts of her compositions, listen to the radio documentary “The Price of Admission: A Musical Biography of Florence Beatrice Price,” by Terrance McKnight of WQXR, New York City.




Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.