In observance of Black History Month, we are sharing a special blog post by Elizabeth Busch, guest author, bassoon student of CSM’s Matt Ogden, and senior student at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, MD.
“Unfortunately the work of a woman composer is preconceived by many to be light, froth, lacking in depth, logic and virility. Add to that the incident of race–I have Colored blood in my veins–and you will understand some of the difficulties that confront one in such a position.” So wrote Florence Price in a letter to Serge Koussevitzky, who at the time conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This insight could have been penned today, but Price, who lived from 1887-1953, wrote her letter to Koussevitzky in 1943. Although she was not successful in getting Koussevitzky to program her tremendous output of music, she still enjoyed respect as a groundbreaking composer during her lifetime.
Price’s most memorable accomplishments came in the 1930s, when she was in her forties and fifties. Barbara Jackson notes, “Florence really wanted to be a doctor but felt the difficulties of becoming a woman doctor at the time were too formidable. So, instead, she became that even greater rarity, a woman composer of symphonies.”
Most career paths were closed to women, particularly women of color, in the first half of the twentieth century. However, Price composed music anyway, and in 1932, her Symphony in E Minor won the Wanamaker Competition. Because of this recognition, she reached another milestone; in 1933, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed the work. It was the first time that a prominent American orchestra performed a work by a Black woman.
Price’s early family life helped her to develop the skills to achieve these successes. Based in Little Rock, Arkansas, her father, James Smith, was a dentist who opened his own practice in 1878. Before their marriage, Price’s mother, Florence Gulliver Smith, was a teacher. In 1876, the couple married, and they had two sons before Price. Price’s mother was her first music teacher, and the young student blossomed; Price performed publicly for the first time at a piano recital at the age of four, published her first composition at the age of eleven, and received payment for a piece at the age of sixteen. In 1903, after graduating from high school, she left Arkansas for the New England Conservatory.
After completing her education, Price worked many jobs as a professional musician. She taught organ and piano lessons, provided music for silent theaters, and played for church services. She also taught at a variety of schools, such as Cotton Plant-Arkadelphia Academy and Clark College. In addition to her teaching jobs, Price continued to compose. These compositions were mostly for advertisements or people learning to play the piano. Although Price married in 1912 and had children, she continued to teach and write music rather than ending her career. Her music began to attract attention, and she won prizes from a magazine called Opportunity twice before her success with her Symphony in E Minor.
Despite these triumphs, Price had to deal with racism throughout her career in both the South and the North. Even as a young woman, her experiences at the New England Conservatory were tempered by the fact that she had to conceal her racial identity. Photographic evidence suggests that there were several other Black students at the time, but her mother insisted that she “pass” as a safety measure. Price left Little Rock for Chicago in 1927, when she was forty. This relocation was probably because of the South’s increasing acceptance of violence towards African Americans. Despite this regional shift and her growing fame, racism continued to affect her life. At a 1935 gala in her honor in Little Rock, the advertisements noted, “Seats will be reserved for white persons,” although both white and Black people attended. Even when she was recognized as a talented composer, she could not escape the culture of racism. Price died in 1953, just before the Civil Rights Era. While the reforms of the years immediately following her death have by no means eliminated racism in the United States, Price was unable to benefit from legislation such as the Civil Rights Act that might have afforded her greater respect and security.
The question of Price’s legacy remains important and under-discussed nearly seventy years after her death. She was “the first black American woman to win widespread recognition as a symphonic composer,” and Dominique-René De Lerma calls her “a figure of unquestioned importance in American music history.” And yet, she is largely unstudied and unperformed in the modern era. Part of this issue seems to be technical, given that the majority of her 300 pieces are not published. At the same time, more performers and directors are discovering her music. For example, a website created by Karen Walwyn promotes concerts featuring Price’s compositions and offers new recordings of her forgotten works. Still, her groundbreaking work merits her greater consideration than she usually receives, and the modern dismissal of her by major orchestras is at least partially grounded in biases against her race and sex that linger on years after her death.
Elizabeth Busch Bassoonist Senior Undergraduate Student Mount Saint Mary’s University