Florence B. Price

Musician | Class of 2018

Florence Beatrice Smith Price, a classical music great, was born April 9, 1887, in Little Rock Arkansas, to Florence Gulliver and John H. Smith. She and her two siblings all learned how to play the piano when they were very young. Their mother was a music teacher. Young Florence gave her first recital at age 4. Florence Smith graduated from Capitol High School at age 14, was the class valedictorian, and had already become a published composer by then. After high school graduation, Smith attended the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, where she majored in organ and piano and graduated with two degrees.

In spite of the racial obstacles she faced, she developed relationships with other African-American composers such as William Grant Still. Smith was even mentored by such classical icons as George Whitefield Chadwick and Frederick Converse. She graduated from the Conservatory of Music in 1906 and worked for a few years as a teacher, all the while composing. Smith became the head of the music department at Clark University in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1910. In 1912, she married attorney Thomas J. Price and moved back to Little Rock. They had two daughters and a stillborn son. She dedicated a song to their son. The family was so traumatized by a lynching in Little Rock in 1927 and the racial tensions that followed, they uprooted and settled in Chicago, Illinois, where Florence took full advantage of every opportunity availed to her at numerous musical institutions.

Her marriage ended causing her financial strain as a single parent. She worked composing pieces for radio advertisements and playing the organ for silent-movie screenings. Her songs for piano began to be published by the end of the 1920s.

The unfortunate fluke of a broken foot gave her the solitude and time to complete work on the 1932 Wanamaker Prize winning long-form composition “Symphony in E Minor.” In 1933, that piece became the first composition by an African-American woman to be performed at the Century of Progress Fair by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. That led to two decades of Price’s work being performed by orchestras both nationally and internationally and opportunities for her to perform as well. Aside from her orchestral compositions, Price composed vocal selections that were performed by such vocal greats as Marian Anderson who closed her historic performance at the Lincoln Memorial with the spiritual “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord” in 1939 on Easter Sunday. Price also composed the musical accompaniment sung by Anderson to the Langston Hughes poem “Song to the Dark Virgin”. Other noted vocalists to perform Price’s compositions were Leontyne Price and William Warfield.

In 1940, Price was inducted into the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers. Eventually, Price had composed more than 300 pieces many of which were lost or went unpublished. Her compositions, which were for a time over-shadowed by modern composers, experienced a new surge when African American and female composers gained new popularity. In 2001, the Women’s Philharmonic released an album of Price’s compositions. Two of her most popular pieces were recorded and released in 2011 and performed by classical pianist Karen Walwyn and the New Black Repertory Ensemble. In 2013, a New York radio station hosted a documentary on her career.

Florence Beatrice Price died on June 3, 1953, in Chicago after suffering a stroke.

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