On June 15, 1933, Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered Florence Price’s Symphony in E Minor in front of a packed house at the Auditorium Theatre. That night Price became the first African American woman to earn such a distinguished premiere. In a certain sense, the event mirrored Jackie Robinson’s heroic Major League debut fourteen years later. Like Robinson, Price’s talent far exceeded many of her more successful white contemporaries, whose presence in the “big leagues” was never questioned.
Jackie Robinson’s name and achievements are widely appreciated, and rightly so. But most classical music lovers probably know little if anything about Price. Her music is still essentially unheard. How could such an accomplished musician fall into obscurity?
Price first entered the “mainstream” of American classical music when, at the age of sixteen, she enrolled at Boston’s New England Conservatory as one of only three black students. There she studied with the school’s best teachers, including director George Whitefield Chadwick (1854–1931). The conservatory awarded her diplomas in two distinct courses of study: organ and piano pedagogy—a truly rare accomplishment.
Price continued to succeed during her mature career as a composer. Her pioneering symphony, won the prestigious Rodman Wanamaker prize in 1932. The award caught Stock’s attention and led him to premiere the work. Contralto Marian Anderson (1897–1993) sang Price’s arrangement of the spiritual “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord” at her defiant Easter recital on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 and continued to champion Price’s music for decades.
But Price faced steep hurdles in the 1940s. With Stock’s passing in 1942, she lost a key ally. Hoping to secure another prestigious venue for her orchestral music, the following year she contacted Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Serge Koussevitzky about performing some of her works. Even after she wrote him several letters, he never offered anything more than a curt reply. Though difficult to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt, such tacit racism and sexism has plagued classical musicians for centuries and in this case stalled Price’s career.
Even so, Price continued to write prolifically until her untimely death in 1953. Most of her major works draw inspiration in some way from African American folk music and dance. Several pieces quote spirituals, for example, while others incorporate rhythms from a slave dance called the “juba.” Price also wrote abstract music in a modernist idiom, but her full stylistic range has largely remained inaccessible and unanalyzed since much of her music was long considered lost.
In 2009, an Illinois couple found the music after purchasing an abandoned house once owned by Price’s family. With the aid of librarians who assessed the manuscript collection, the couple eventually sent the music to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. Now that Price’s music has been found and is available for study, we can hope that it will be heard—in some cases for the first time—and will lay the foundation for an enduring legacy.
Douglas Shadle is an Assistant Professor of Musicology at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Orchestrating the Nation: The Nineteenth-Century American Symphonic Enterprise (Oxford, 2016) and is currently writing a new book on Antonín Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony. In May of 2016 he spent two weeks in Fayetteville, Arkansas studying Florence Price’s life and music.