Florence Price was the first African-American woman to be recognised as a symphonic composer and have her composition played by a major orchestra. This was certainly an important moment in western classical music, and one that we should all be aware of – read on to learn more about her career, her forgotten manuscripts, and where you can find her on our Classical Piano syllabus!
Despite the horrendous racial problems that permeated society when she was born in 1887 Arkansas, Florence’s mixed-race family were building a successful life within their community. Her father was a dentist, the only black dentist in the entire city, and her mother was a music teacher. Clearly Price inherited the talents of her mother, as by the time she was 11 years old she had published her first composition!
And her early success did not stop there. Florence managed to bag her spot in the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, majoring in both piano and organ. However, as a black woman, entry to the conservatory was not a simple task. Florence initially passed as Mexican, stating her hometown as Pueblo, to avoid receiving racial discrimination at the college.
It was in the 1920s when Florence moved to Chicago and began a newly fulfilling period in her composition career. She moved in with friend and fellow pianist and composer, Margaret Bonds, and the two friends took the classical music world by storm - they received national recognition for their performances and compositions! Price won the first prize for her “Symphony in E Minor” for the Wanamaker Foundation Awards. It was after this enormous success that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered the symphony in 1933, making our girl Florence Price the first African-American woman to have a composition played by a major orchestra. A truly fantastic achievement.
Lost and Found
Incredibly, a huge collection of her manuscripts were discovered in an old abandoned home in St Anne, Illinois, in 2009. We’re talking dozens of never-seen-(or heard)-before scores that would otherwise have been lost forever, including her two stunning violin concertos and the entire fourth symphony: extraordinary. Of course, they had already been missing since her death in 1953, and sadly we know that some of her works were never recovered.
It seems that this derelict house can serve as an important reminder of how a country can forget its cultural history, but a certain Dr. Karen Walwyn is determined to not let Florence Price and her creations be forgotten. A pianist, composer and Steinway Artist herself, Karen has continued the necessary work in collecting and recording the lost and found music, and was even invited by the Center of Black Music Research in Chicago to perform and record the premiere of Price’s Concerto for Piano in One Movement. The world certainly needs people like Karen Walwyn. Check out her website where you can follow along with her journey here!
And the best part? You can find Florence in our new Classical Piano syllabus, in Grade 4 with “Ticklin’ Toes”, and Grade 6 with “Silk Hat and Walking Cane”. These pieces will give you a superb marriage of traditions, steeped in her particularly European training but with the flavour of the African idiom throughout. Think blues inspired melodies with Romantic techniques, and you’ll be some of the way there!