Florence Price — Impenetrable
The night is not all dark, Nor is the day all it seems, But each may bring me this relief— My dreams and dreams.
— Paul Laurence Dunbar, Forever
The greatest creators always seem to have a characteristic that stands out, a peculiarity that people often point to and say “see, that’s how a genius acts.” In the case of Florence Beatrice Price, it seems this was not the case, and yet was all the more true at the same time. You see, Price grew up as a mixed-race, African-American in the post-reconstruction South, when societal architecture was delicate. Price was raised in a comfortable situation, but likely taught to be respectful and reserved, as this would make all social situations go as smoothly as possible, what some called “politics of respectability.” At the same time, Price was full of pride and demanded respect as a woman and a composer. Living in a mostly white Chicago neighborhood in the 1940s, Price’s neighbors said she “didn’t cater to white people,” and she was “stately, aloof, and always well dressed.” So, returning to that mysterious characteristic of genius, these two sides of her personality combined for an overall mixed result. Though Price, admittedly, did not aggressively promote herself (even her daughter would assist in this task), from the recently released biography on Price, The Heart of a Woman, Rae Linda Brown posits
A lesser-known work, though equally massive in quality, Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement was also performed by the Chicago Symphony and became a musical talking point of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1934. Performed by the highly regarded Woman’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago, conducted by Ebba Sundstrom, the concerto—by extension of the Fair having brought people in large numbers from all over the country—was heard, reviewed, and praised by many. One Glenn Dillard Gunn (despite an apparent chauvinism earlier in the review) remarked
That characteristic, so bold and reserved, was both normal in one respect, and in another exactly what allowed her to focus on her own internal goals.
Price was always curious, hungry to learn. Her mother, a musician and school teacher, encouraged and facilitated that curiosity, as a young girl, becoming her first piano teacher and assisting in publishing her first composition at the age of 11 (!), and later setting her up to study at the New England Conservatory of Music (NEC) in Boston, where she would blossom as a performer and composer. Notably, while at NEC, Price studied composition with George Whitefield Chadwick, who was a key figure of the so called “Boston 6” and long time President of NEC (whom you can read more about in my post about Chadwick himself). Price came to Boston at just the right time, while American composers were being promoted and encouraged to produce a uniquely “American” sound, and Chadwick was actively restructuring NEC’s faculty to integrate a more home-grown mix, rather than an almost exclusively European/German representation. Obviously, this was all encouraging for Price, but the atmosphere wasn’t entirely without fault. Again quoting from Price’s biographer Rae Linda Brown, the milieu is illustrated:
When Price began her studies in 1903, registration was approximately 2000, the greatest number of those students being young women. For most women, conservatory training was similar to a finishing school. As the 1906 New England Conservatory yearbook, the Neume, explained, “it makes her independent and self-supporting, more intellectual and refined, an ornament in society, and a pleasure to family and friends."
I’m betting this sounded as insulting to Price as it does now. And despite this mindset Price built a career and formidable reputation well beyond Boston.
Price’s portfolio, while largely consisting of compositions for piano, organ, and choral and vocal pieces, contains extensive orchestral work. Four symphonies, four concertos, and at least 9 other titled pieces fill out her offering, not including the choral works accompanied by orchestra. Her Symphony No. 1 in E minor, probably her most well-known work, won her the Wanamaker Foundation Award and subsequently a performance by the Chicago Symphony, honoring Price as the first African-American woman to have a composition performed by a major orchestra. Written in 1933, only 2 years after William Grant Still’s own Afro-American Symphony No. 1, Price’s premiere symphony is both strongly rooted in African American folk material while structurally influenced by Dvořák’s New World Symphony No. 9. As Price’s biographer, Rae Linda Brown, observed, “…an examination of Price’s symphony reveals that she thoroughly studied Dvořák’s score. In its overall content, formal organization, orchestration, and spirit, she seems to have taken the Bohemian composer’s directive quite personally.” Dvořák’s “directive” being that “The future of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies… This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.” (Of course, Amy Beach addressed this directive in a completely different way, as you can read in my post here.)
A lesser known work, though equally massive in quality, Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement was also performed by the Chicago Symphony and became a musical talking point of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1934. Performed by the highly regarded Woman’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago, conducted by Ebba Sundstrom, the concerto—by extension of the Fair having brought people in large numbers from all over the country—was heard, reviewed, and praised by many. One Glenn Dillard Gunn (despite an apparent chauvinism earlier in the review) remarked
This series of successes and exposures was a boon for Price’s career and led her not to just notoriety but legendary status as well.s full of fine melodies deriving from this source directly or by imitation. The quasi-symphonic treatment of these ideas shows abundant resource, both harmonic and orchestral.
This series of successes and exposures was a boon for Price’s career, and led her not to just notoriety but legendary status as well.
There is still much to be explored, enjoyed, and discovered in Price’s music. Even as recently as 2009, manuscripts of Price’s music were found, including her 2 violin concertos, in an abandoned Illinois home Price had used in the Summer. The concertos were finally recorded for the first time and released only in 2018! Unfortunate as it is that these scores were lost for so long, I am elated that in my lifetime there is the possibility to add substance to the orchestral canon and potentially record the defining interpretations of Price’s compositions. Making history new again. What could be more exciting?