Florence Price was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887, just one generation removed from the Civil War. She was surrounded by racial animus and the extreme violence that followed that bloody conflagration. Recognizing her special musical talent, her mother sent her off at 14 to study music at the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. To protect her from invidious discrimination, her mother enrolled her bi-racial daughter as “Mexican”, listing her hometown as Puebla, Mexico. And so it was for most of Florence’s life. She was a minority woman in a white male dominated space living in a society overtly practicing racial segregation.
She returned to Little Rock upon graduation, but to flee the unrelenting violence, she moved to Chicago in 1927, joining the migration of former slaves to northern cities to escape the virulently Jim Crow South. She flourished in her new environment, becoming the first black woman composer to have her Symphony (in E minor) performed by a major American orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933. The Chicago Daily News declared it “A faultless work, a work that speaks its own message with restraint and yet with passion, worthy of a place in the regular symphonic repertoire.”
Sometime after her death in 1953, much of her music was lost, and she lapsed for a time into relative obscurity. In 2009, however, a family moved into a house in St. Anne, Illinois that had been abandoned for fifty years. While rummaging around the attic, they found a dusty box full of hand-written music. It was Florence’s long-lost unpublished work. This discovery included scores for two violin concertos and her Fourth Symphony. The find sparked a new interest in Florence’s rich music and her most interesting life. And so today her legacy comes to Boise.
Her Quartet in G Major is one of Florence’s most beloved pieces. It speaks for itself, but I must say that the second of the two movements is gorgeous, very songlike and spiritual. What a melody!
To give you a taste of the tenor of the times in which Florence lived, here is an excerpt from a letter she wrote in 1943 to Serge Koussevitzky, the Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. “Dear Mr. Koussevitzky. To begin with, I have two handicaps – those of sex and race. I am a woman, and I have Negro blood in my veins.” Sad. One wonders how many other superbly talented individuals have not been permitted to share their gifts with us. Better late than never.