Black American women composers have been forgotten for decades, but, their music has been catalogued for posterity. One great Black woman composer stands as a giant in her field.
Here is her story.
Florence Beatrice Smith Price (April 9, 1888 – June 3, 1953), was one of the first Black American women composers to achieve widespread recognition.
The life story of Ms. Price is one filled with amazing accomplishments in the music world during the first half of the 20TH century. Not only would her music career have been a model of success on its own merit, but the historical and cultural contexts of Ms. Price’s work especially establish a unique persona worthy of acclaim. Ms. Price’s legacy was grounded in the pride and fortitude of her parentage, propelling her through a rich array of pursuits in music education and composition. Thus, Florence Price is remembered in the music world as the first Black American woman composer to earn international recognition. Her works have been performed by major orchestras as well as by numerous renowned solo artists.
Florence Beatrice Price was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, the daughter of a politically and socially well-connected family. Her father, James H. Smith, was a dentist who opened his office on Main Street in Little Rock, the first Black to claim that distinction in this southern town in the late 1800s. He married Florence Gulliver, who had been a teacher in the Indianapolis area. Their union produced three children, one son and two daughters. Florence was th youngest. At a very early age Florence began studying piano with her mother. Her mother presented Florence in public performance when she was four years old. Encouraged in her musical studies throughout her childhood, Florence soon began composing her own music. By the time she was eleven, one of her pieces was in print, and when she was sixteen one of her compositions earned her a fee.
Ms. Price left Little Rock, and studied piano, organ, and composition at the New England Conservatory in Boston, studying with George W. Chadwick, Frederick S. Converse, and Henry M. Dunham. She graduated in 1906 at the age of eighteen. For the next four years she taught at the Cotton-Plant Arkadelphia Academy and Shorter College in her hometown. She then moved to Atlanta, Georgia in 1910 where she accepted a position as head of the music department at Clark University.
In 1912, she returned to Little Rock, met and married Thomas Price, and in time became well established as a teacher. Along with piano and organ, Ms. Price offered violin lessons, another instrument she had studied as a child. She soon began to earn recognition for her work, winning the Holstein Composition Award in 1925. During this time, race relations were horrific for Black citizens, and had been on a steady decline in Arkansas. Ms. Price’s application for membership in the Arkansas Music teachers Association was denied. Then, the lynching of a Black man accused of assaulting a White woman had a great impact on the lives of many Black families, including her own. As a result, Mr. and Mrs. Price moved their family to Chicago in 1927, where she would remain for the rest of her life.
Ms. Price’s successes, as well as those of contemporaries such as William Grant Still (1895 – 1978) and William Dawson (1899-1990), occurred during what is known as the Negro Renaissance. Ms. Price and her colleagues pursued formal studies of music composition, bringing a new approach to the manner in which nationalistic elements were incorporated into their creations. Her music included the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic flavor of her musical heritage with the traditions oF Western classical music. Ms. Price was one of the earliest Black American composers to successfully bridge this gap.
Ms. price wrote many piano pieces appropriate for the pedagogical work in which she was so heavily involved. A number of these have piqued the interests of scholars. Three Little Negro Dances, published by Presser Publishers, originally appeared as solo piano pieces and was later arranged by Ms. Price for two pianos as wells as for symphonic band. Other piano titles that reflected Ms. Price’s intent to write for younger students were The Gnat and the Bee, and Doll Waltz.
In 1932, Ms. Price won four awards during the Wannamaker Competition, one of which was for Symphony in E Minor.
Ms. Price also left a piano concerto and a work completed in 1935, Tecumseh, which was published by Carl Fischer. Ms. Price contributed symphonies for orchestra: three numbered symphonies (Symphony in E Minor played by a U.S. orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) and several concertos for orchestra, piano or violin. Violin for Concerto No. 2 was written just one year later before her death. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Women’s Orchestra performed her Piano Concerto in One Movement. Along with Presser and Fischer, Summy, Clayton, Oxford Piano Course, and Silver Burdette have published her works.
In addition to her classical compositions, Ms. Price was also known for writing commercials for radio, a lucrative aspect of the music business, yet on the other hand considered less of an expectation among more “traditional” classical composers. Ms. Price went on to become a member of the prestigious American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). Her works have been performed by other symphonies such as the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and the United States Marine Band.
Famous artists who have performed her works include Marian Anderson, Roland Hayes, Leontyne Price, Todd Duncan, and William Warfield.
Ms. Price wrote more than 300 musical works, among her most known pieces are: Sonata in E Minor, Fantasie Negre, Mississippi River Suite, Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, as well as Symphony in E Minor.
On June 3, 1953, Ms. Florence Beatrice Smith Price died of a stroke.
While Ms. Price’s music may not have become standard in the repertoire amongst pianists, American symphony orchestras, or other performers, since her death, it is a beneficial gift to the music world that her profound contributions did not become lost to history.
In 1986, Ms. Price’s Symphony in E Minor was given rebirth through a performance by the North Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, as a birthday remembrance performed during the month of Ms. Price birth month of April. The performance was held at the University of Arkansas, the home of more than eighty scores by Ms. Price in the Special Collections Division of the university library. The life and music of Ms. Florence Beatrice Smith Price may have come full circle. Her start began in Arkansas, peaked in Chicago, and returned home for the final stage of development–settling into a place in music history.
“Florence Smith Price”, by Mellasenah Morris, from Black Women in America, by Darlene Clark Hine, et. al. Oxford University Press, 2005.
Florence Beatrice Smith Price, Correspondence, Musical Scores, and Other Papers (1906 -1975)
The Encyclopedia of Arkansas: Florence Beatrice Smith Price