Florence Price was a musical pioneer — one of the first African-American students to graduate from the New England Conservatory of Music, the first African-American woman to have a symphonic work performed by a major American orchestra, the first winner of the composition contest sponsored by the progressive Wanamaker Foundation.
Florence Beatrice Smith was born in 1888 into the prosperous and cultured family of a dentist in Little Rock, Arkansas, and received her first piano lessons from her mother, a schoolteacher and singer; Florence first played in public when she was four. She later also took up organ and violin, and at age fourteen was admitted to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where she studied with George Chadwick and Frederick Converse, two of their generation’s leading composers, wrote her first string trio and a symphony (now lost), and graduated in 1907 with honors for both an artist diploma in organ and a teaching certificate. She returned to Arkansas, where she taught at Arkadelphia Academy and Shorter College before being appointed music department chairman at Clark University in Atlanta in 1910. She returned to Little Rock two years later to marry attorney Thomas J. Price, and left classroom teaching to devote herself to raising two daughters, giving private instruction in violin, organ and piano, and composing.
In 1927, following racial unrest in Arkansas that culminated in a lynching, the Price family moved to Chicago, where Florence studied composition, orchestration, organ, languages and liberal arts at various schools with several of the city’s leading musicians and teachers. Black culture and music flourished in Chicago — jazz, blues, spirituals, popular, theater, and classical — educational opportunities were readily available, recording studios were established, the National Association of Negro Musicians was founded there in 1919, and Price took advantage of everything. She ran a successful piano studio, wrote educational pieces for her students, published gospel and folksong arrangements, composed popular songs (under the pseudonym VeeJay), and performed as a church and theater organist. Among her many friends were the physician Dr. Monroe Alpheus Majors and his wife, organist and music teacher Estelle C. Bonds, and Price became both friend and teacher to their gifted daughter, Margaret. In 1932, Price and Bonds (then just nineteen) won respectively first and second prize in the Rodman Wanamaker Foundation Composition Competition, established to recognize classical compositions by Black composers, Price for her Symphony in E Minor and Piano Sonata and Bonds for her song Sea Ghost. The performance of Price’s Symphony on June 15, 1933 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Frederick Stock, was the first by a major American orchestra of a symphonic work by an African-American woman. Price continued to compose prolifically — three more symphonies and two more piano concertos, a violin concerto, chamber, piano and organ pieces, songs, spiritual arrangements, jingles for radio commercials — and received numerous performances, including her arrangement of the spiritual My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord that Marian Anderson used to close her historic concert at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on April 9, 1939. Florence Price died in Chicago on June 3, 1953.