How Florence Price’s 1933 Chicago performance made history
Florence Price’s First Symphony helped break down racial discrimination... here's why
'I have two handicaps – those of sex and race. I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins.’ Florence Price’s assessment of her standing as a classical composer was all too accurate.
How racism affected Florence Price
Born in 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas, into a mixed-race family of African-American descent, Florence Price spent much of her professional life grappling with what one writer has called the ‘dangerous mélange of segregation, Jim Crow laws, entrenched racism and sexism’ in post-Civil War American society.
Price’s family circumstances were, however, better than those of most other African-Americans. Her father was a successful dentist, at a period when the number of Black dentists in the entire US barely reached double figures.
Her mother was a pianist and music teacher, and the family lived in a generously appointed home with its own reading room, a grand piano and elegant furniture. By the age of four, Florence had played her first piano recital, and by eleven her first composition was published. Hers was by any standards a comfortable, privileged childhood.
And yet the racist wolf continued to maraud in society at large. To avoid it, Price’s mother took special measures when Florence went to study organ and piano at the New England Conservatory in Boston. ‘My grandmother didn’t want my mother to be a Negro,’ one of Price’s daughters later commented. ‘So when she took her to Boston, she rented an expensive apartment with a maid and forced my mother to say her birthplace was not Little Rock but Mexico.’
Price flourished at college, and although she taught successfully after graduating in 1906 and had more pieces published, the path ahead was often rocky. For a time, after divorcing her abusive first husband, Thomas, in 1931, she worked as a cinema organist and wrote radio jingles to support two children as a single mother.
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Where did Florence Price perform in Chicago?
Her breakthrough finally came two years later, in 1933, when her Symphony No. 1 in E minor was premiered by the prestigious Chicago Symphony Orchestra – the first symphony by a Black woman to be performed by a major American orchestra. Price had completed the work a year earlier, when it won the $500 first prize in a competition sponsored by the National Association for Negro Musicians.
The concert at the Auditorium Theatre on 15 June was part of the Century of Progress exposition at the Chicago World’s Fair, and was billed ‘The Negro in Music’. Price’s symphony shared the programme with works by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Harry T Burleigh, Roland Hayes and – bizarrely – John Powell, who held white supremacist views.
Price’s symphony drew glowing accolades from the critics, one of whom experienced a ‘feeling of awe’ at witnessing ‘the beautiful, harmonious strains of a composition by a Race woman’ performed by ‘an aggregation of master musicians of the white race’, under the German conductor Frederick Stock, who had personally championed the piece.
The Symphony was ‘a faultless work’, the Chicago Daily News reported, ‘worthy of a place in the regular symphonic repertory’. Old prejudices die hard, however, and Price’s First Symphony fell into obscurity in the decades following her death in 1953.
The #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements have, though, prompted a timely reappraisal of Price’s place in American music history.
Recent recordings of the First Symphony – conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s with the Philadelphia Orchestra, in particular – have underlined its warmly Dvořákian palette and the rich peppering of African-American melodic influences.
‘We are waking up to the fact pregnant with possibilities that we already have a folk music in the Negro spirituals,’ Price once wrote. ‘It is simple heart music and therefore powerful.’