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Who Was Florence Price?

Who Was Florence Price?

Answered by Er-Gene Kahng, graduate chair, violin, in the Music Department

Florence Beatrice Smith Price (1887–1953) was the first African-American woman to write a symphony performed by a major U.S. orchestra, though much of her orchestral music remains unknown.

A native of Little Rock, Arkansas, Price received early musical training from her mother while being educated in the city’s segregated schools. She graduated first in her high-school class and, to pursue a musical career, enrolled at Boston’s New England Conservatory in 1903. There she studied with the city’s leading musicians, including conservatory director George Whitefield Chadwick, Henry Dunham, J. Albert Jeffery, Louis Elson and Frederick Converse. She graduated with two diplomas—organ and piano—in 1906.

After leaving Boston, Price returned to the South, where she became a piano instructor and married an attorney, Thomas Jewell Price. The Prices had three children—two daughters, Florence and Edith; and a son, Tommy, who did not survive infancy. Tragedies continued to affect the family as race relations in Little Rock became increasingly violent. Consequently, Price began to look elsewhere for professional growth.

She first turned to Harlem, where the so-called New Negro Renaissance was in full swing. The Harlem-based literary journal Opportunity hosted composition contests that Price entered and won in 1926 and 1927. During those same summers, she also attended classes at the Chicago Musical College, where she studied composition with the well-known pedagogue Carl Busch. Eventually Price relocated to Chicago.

Chicago offered Price a well-developed, though essentially segregated, musical infrastructure. Organizations like the National Association of Negro Musicians, the R. Nathaniel Dett Club and the Chicago Music Association allowed her to connect with prominent black musicians in the city. She was also able to find several local publishing houses to print her music. In addition to short piano pieces, her publications included popular songs, and these formed a steady source of income as she pursued other interests. When money was tight, she also performed as an organist in the city’s motion picture theaters.

Most importantly for Price, moving to Chicago also gave her many more opportunities to pursue, as she once put it, “the kind of music which lies closest to my heart”—large classical works. Not long after she arrived, the National Association of Negro Musicians began to host composition competitions. Sensing an opportunity to write for orchestra without the added burden of securing a performance, Price entered the contest in 1932 and won two prizes—first place and honorable mention—for her Symphony in E Minor and the tone poem Ethiopia’s Shadow in America. These prizes propelled her into the national spotlight, and Frederick Stock, director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, offered to perform the symphony at a 1933 concert.

Stock and the CSO premiered the symphony during the city’s Century of Progress International Exposition, which extended from May 1933 to November 1934. On the evening of June 15, 1933, Price’s symphony appeared at an Exposition concert alongside John Alden Carpenter’s Concertino for Piano and Orchestra with her former student Margaret Bonds as soloist and vocal pieces performed by renowned tenor Roland Hayes. Critics called Price’s symphony “highly exhilarating” and “a work that speaks its own message with restraint and yet with passion.” A writer for the African-American newspaper Chicago Defender added that the concert marked “the beginning of a new era for us in the world of music.”

Price capitalized on this success by writing a piano concerto, which premiered about a year later under Stock’s baton with Price at the keyboard. Over the next several months, the concerto appeared at the annual meeting of the National Association of Negro Musicians and on several occasions at the Exposition. Some of these concerts, given by the Women’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago, were broadcast over the radio, giving audiences far outside Chicago a chance to hear Price’s music.

Throughout her career, Price felt a profound connection to spirituals and songs created by African-American slaves. Price was fully aware of the powerful symbolic and musical potential carried by the spirituals. In a class essay she wrote in 1938, she explained, “We are even beginning to believe in the possibility of establishing a national musical idiom. We are waking up to the fact pregnant with possibilities that we already have a folk music in the Negro spirituals—music which is potent, poignant, compelling. It is simple heart music and therefore powerful. It runs the gamut of emotions.” Price’s Symphony in E Minor became one of the first works by Americans of African ancestry to integrate the ethos of the spirituals fully into classical symphonic molds.

While maintaining a busy schedule writing orchestral music, Price also embarked on a deep interpersonal collaboration with contralto Marian Anderson. Price composed more than 50 unique pieces for Anderson’s portfolio, including Song to the Dark Virgin and an arrangement of the spiritual “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord,” both of which Anderson recorded and sang on many different occasions. Anderson propelled Price into the national spotlight once more when she sang “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord” as the rousing finale to her Easter recital given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. Anderson’s support finally allowed Price and her daughters to reap steadier financial rewards for her musical creativity.

Price continued to compose orchestral music between 1940 and her death, but successes became scarce. Walter Poole, conductor of the Works Progress Administration orchestra in Michigan, performed her Third Symphony in 1940. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt praised the music publicly in “My Day,” her syndicated newspaper column.

But, in contrast, Serge Koussevitzky refused to perform any of her music with the Boston Symphony despite Price’s gentle requests that he look over her scores. Sir John Barbirolli performed still another new work in 1951, but Price was unable to attend the overseas performance on account of poor health. She died suddenly in 1953 while planning to go to Europe to pursue other opportunities.

When Price died, her orchestral music, most of which was unpublished, fell into the hands of her daughter, Florence Price Robinson. Robinson encountered grave difficulties in her attempts to find performance outlets for her mother’s music. With few direct connections to industry insiders, she was unable to advocate effectively on her mother’s behalf, and Price’s music fell into obscurity.

When Robinson herself died in 1975, Price’s manuscript scores were presumably lost. But two property renovators discovered them in an abandoned house in 2009. The University of Arkansas eventually purchased the scores and opened them to the public several years later. This newly available collection included the manuscripts to the two violin concertos recorded in the Czech Republic this last spring. This world premiere recording of her two violin concertos reveals her stylistic breadth, as well her deep engagement with the music and ideas of her contemporaries.

Er-Gene Kahng

Er-Gene Kahng

Professor of Violin and Graduate Studies Chair

Kahng studied with Mark Kaplan, Erick Friedman, Syoko Aki, and Almita Vamos as well as with members of the Tokyo String Quartet. She has held title positions with the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra, the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, as well as section positions with the Lancaster Symphony, New Haven Symphony Orchestra, and Eastern Connecticut Symphony.

She currently serves as concertmaster of the Arkansas Philharmonic Orchestra and assistant concertmaster of the Fort Smith Symphony. She also performs as a substitute section violinist with the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra and Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. She was previously the associate concertmaster of SoNA (Symphony of Northwest Arkansas) as well as a previous member of the Artosphere Festival Orchestra.

In addition to being a member of the Fulbright Trio, the resident faculty piano trio, Kahng participates in and co-founded the Fulbright Summer Chamber Music festival, a 6-week summer chamber music series. In the latter part of the summer, Kahng serves as the violin faculty and 2nd violinist in a string quartet as part of the Bay View Music Festival in Petoskey, Michigan.

During the 2016-2017 academic year, Kahng was a Visiting Fellow at the University of Cambridge in Cambridge, England. Kahng is a member of College Music Society and American String Teachers Association.

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