The History of Florence Price: The African-American Composer Who Made History

Florence Price (born Florence Beatrice Smith) was an African-American classical pianist, composer, teacher and organist. She lived from April 9th 1887- June 3rd 1953. She played her first recital at the young age of 4 and was from Little Rock, Arkansas. 

Price studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston to study piano teaching. She then taught music briefly in Arkansas after achieving her bachelor’s degree and then went on to teach in Atlanta and eventually settled in Chicago, Illinois in 1927, where she continued to study music at Chicago’s ‘Musical College’.She also joined the ‘Chicago Black Renaissance’ and studied composition and orchestration.

Price first marked history in 1933, when she became the first African-American female composer to have her work played by a major American orchestra. Her piece ‘Symphony NO.1’ was bought for $250 (about $5000 in 2021) by Maude Roberts George for the ‘The Negro of Music’ performance and played by The Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

In 1934 Florence was a part of the Women’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago, which was a popular orchestra known for uplifting women who played some of Price’s work, which started a long relationship between the organisation and Price. In the same year Price represented her class at Chicago’s musical college when performing one of her pieces, the cencora, for ‘Piano and Orchestra’.

LISTEN: Florence Price in Orchestra

Florence Price was celebrated largely in Chicago during her lifetime but was only particularly celebrated as a performer and not a conductor as women in the 18th-1900s were only supposed to perform music as a hobby, for male enjoyment, and not to produce, educate or influence others with it.

In 2009 a large amount of her work and papers were discovered in an abandoned house in Illinois (which Price had used as a summer home). The papers consisted of dozens of her scores, her two violin concertos and her 4th unreleased symphony. Despite her interesting life and hard work her music was not known globally or appreciated until her unpublished music was discovered in 2009, which renewed a lot of interest in Price and her previous work.

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Written by: Jessica Hine