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Florence Price
Symphony No. 1

Florence Price

  • Born: April 9, 1888, Little Rock, Arkansas
  • Died: June 3, 1953, Chicago, Illinois

 

Symphony No. 1

  • Composed: 1931-32
  • Premiere: June 15, 1933, Frederick Stock conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Chicago World’s Fair.
  • Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 piccolos, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, African drums, bass drum, chimes, crash cymbals, snare drum, suspended cymbals, triangle, wind whistle, celeste, strings
  • CSO notable performances: These performances are the CSO premiere for the full symphony; mvt. 3 performed in fall of 2019 as part of a Young People’s Concert (conducted by François López-Ferrer) and at the Bond Hill Brady Block Party in 2023 (conducted by Jeri Lynne Johnson); mvt. 4 performed on the 2019 Classical Roots concert, John Morris Russell conducting.
  • Duration: approx. 40 minutes

“It is a faultless work,” observed Chicago music critic Eugene Stinson after the premiere of Florence Price’s Symphony in E Minor in June 1933, “a work that speaks its own message with restraint and yet with passion. Miss Price’s symphony is worthy of a place in the regular symphonic repertory.” Today, audiences around the world are rapidly discovering the truth of Stinson’s observations.

Florence Beatrice Price (1888–1953) was just over 40 years old when she began writing her first orchestral music. Born into a prominent Black family in Little Rock, Arkansas, and educated at Boston’s New England Conservatory, she spent the first two decades of her professional career as a music educator at segregated academies in Arkansas and Georgia. Some of her earliest compositions were written with these students in mind. At the encouragement of her husband in the mid-1920s, Price submitted more ambitious works for solo piano to national competitions designed to support African American composers. Much to her delight, she took home several prizes.

Outside of this professional success, however, Price’s domestic life entered a period of sharp turmoil. Racist violence in Little Rock prompted the Prices and their two daughters to relocate to Chicago in 1927, while her husband’s threatening outbursts caused Florence to seek a divorce only a few years later. Fortunately, Price’s prizewinning reputation had preceded her, and a group of prominent African American musicians, including Maude Roberts George and Estella Bonds, offered professional, artistic and social support—a gesture scholar Samantha Ege has described as “extending the hand of Black women’s fellowship.” It was in this moment of profound transformation that Price began writing for orchestral forces.

Without strong contacts in the orchestra business, she composed two pieces—a tone poem called Ethiopia’s Shadow in America (1929) and the E Minor Symphony (1931–32)—on the gamble that she might eventually find a willing conductor. To that end, she chose to enter both pieces in a 1932 contest named after the department store magnate Rodman Wanamaker. The gamble paid off: the symphony won first prize, gaining the attention of Frederick Stock, longtime conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who chose to premiere the symphony at a performance designed to highlight the achievements of African American musicians. Extending the hand of fellowship once again, Maude Roberts George personally underwrote the concert.

The symphony itself follows the genre’s standard four-part outline, with two dramatic movements sandwiching a slow, introspective second movement and a dance-inspired third. Within this conventional frame, Price’s musical language pulls from diverse stylistic strands. The expansive first movement begins with an open-ended, questioning melody stated in the bassoons, which becomes the basis of a brief section that burns with the high drama of lush orchestral Romanticism in the strings and brass. A gentler melody in the French horn, appearing just before the three-minute mark, offers a sharp contrast. The rest of the movement moves between these two poles, with the searing heat of the opening taking the lead throughout.

The second and third movements are also a study in contrasts, but both share distinct roots in the folk music of the African diaspora. The contours of the brass chorale that opens the second movement resemble a spiritual, while distinctly evoking the sounds of a church organ, Price’s primary instrument. Underpinned by a pulse given by an “African drum,” this hymn-like music recurs in a structure that scholar Rae Linda Brown has connected to call-and-response practices found throughout Africa. The quick third movement, on the other hand, is an orchestral portrait of the Juba, a rhythmically complex African-derived dance common in the antebellum South that involved percussive movements like hand clapping and foot tapping.

A whirlwind finale once again whips up the energy and drama of the first movement, bringing the symphony to a thrilling conclusion. Reporting on the June 1933 premiere, Robert Abbott, editor of the Chicago Defender, the city’s largest Black newspaper, remarked, “After the number was completed, the large auditorium, filled to the brim with music lovers of all races, rang out in applause for both the composer and the orchestral rendition.”

Abbott closed his remarks by adding, “As we listened to that concert, we took hope again that there may yet be real brotherhood in this land of ours.” Historian Kira Thurman has shown, however, that the racial harmony coalescing in this performance—an all-white orchestra performing music written by an African American woman to broad audience acclaim—did not extend beyond the concert hall doors during Price’s lifetime.

Despite Price’s prominence in several musical arenas, from the great contralto Marian Anderson’s international vocal performances to student piano recitals and university pep band concerts throughout the United States, her music did not find a place in the “regular repertory” that critic Eugene Stinson had envisioned. Orchestral opportunities dried up in the 1940s as conductors like Boston’s Serge Koussevitzky rebuffed Price’s requests for performances. When Price died suddenly of cardiac arrest in 1953, most of her manuscripts remained unpublished, leaving them relatively inaccessible for future performances.

One of Price’s daughters, Florence Louise Robinson, nevertheless worked tirelessly to preserve her mother’s legacy by seeking new performances, but she ran into the same discriminatory roadblocks that had affected Price herself. When Florence Louise died in 1975, the location of Price’s handwritten scores became a mystery outside her family—that is, except for the Symphony in E Minor and a handful of others, which Robinson had sent to an enterprising musicologist at the University of Arkansas in the months preceding her death.

Barbara Garvey Jackson (1929–2022), a specialist in music written by women, quickly became Price’s advocate and champion as she pursued further biographical research and even secured performances of the available orchestral music in the 1970s and 1980s. In April 1986, for example, the Northwest Arkansas Symphony Orchestra became perhaps the first ensemble to perform Price’s E Minor Symphony in the half-century after its premiere. Jackson was soon joined by another profoundly influential scholar, Rae Linda Brown (1953–2017), who became a singular authority on Price during her distinguished career.

Miraculously, in 2009, two northern Illinois property hunters named Vicki and Darrell Gatwood stumbled upon a weather-damaged property that contained dozens of pristine handwritten copies of Price’s scores. As it turns out, this property was once Price’s summer home and had fallen into disuse after her daughter’s death. These manuscripts were eventually acquired by the University of Arkansas, where they became available for further use and performance in 2015. From that moment on, scholars and performers have enjoyed access to Price’s scores—a situation bolstered by international publishing giant G. Schirmer’s acquisition of worldwide rights to her catalog.

Through nearly five decades of concerted effort by scholars and performers, Price’s E Minor Symphony—indeed, her entire catalog—is finally entering the “regular repertory” as audiences around the world have come to know and enjoy her distinct compositional voice.

Dr. Douglas W. Shadle
Vanderbilt University