Florence Beatrice Price was born on April 9, 1887, in Little Rock, Arkansas, one of three children in a mixed-race family. Despite racial issues of the era, her family was well respected and did well within their community. Her father was a dentist and her mother was a music teacher who guided Florence's early musical training. She had her first piano performance at the age of four and had her first composition published at the age of 11.
By the time she was 14, Florence had graduated from Capitol High School as valedictorian of her class. After high school, she later enrolled in the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts with a major in piano and organ. Initially, she identified as Mexican to avoid the prejudice people had toward African Americans at the time. At the Conservatory, she studied composition and counterpoint with composers George Chadwick and Frederick Converse. Also while there, she wrote her first string trio and symphony. She graduated in 1906 with honors, and with both an artist diploma in organ and a teaching certificate.
Florence returned to Arkansas, where she taught briefly before moving to Atlanta, Georgia, in 1910. There she became the head of the music department of what is now Clark Atlanta University, a historically black college. In 1912, she married Thomas J. Price, a lawyer. She moved back to Little Rock, Arkansas, where he had his practice. After a series of racial incidents in Little Rock, particularly a lynching of a black man in 1927, the Price family decided to leave. Like many black families living in the Deep South, they moved north in the Great Migration to escape Jim Crow conditions, and settled in Chicago, a major industrial city.
There Florence Price began a new and fulfilling period in her composition career. She studied composition, orchestration, and organ with the leading teachers in the city, including Arthur Olaf Andersen, Carl Busch, Wesley La Violette, and Leo Sowerby. She published four pieces for piano in 1928. While in Chicago, Price was at various times enrolled at the Chicago Musical College, Chicago Teacher’s College, University of Chicago, and American Conservatory of Music, studying languages and liberal arts subjects as well as music. Financial struggles and abuse by her husband resulted in Price getting a divorce in 1931. She became a single mother to her two daughters. To make ends meet, she worked as an organist for silent film screenings and composed songs for radio ads under a pen name. During this time, Price lived with friends. She eventually moved in with her student and friend, Margaret Bonds, also a black pianist and composer. This friendship connected Price with writer Langston Hughes and contralto Marian Anderson, both prominent figures in the art world who aided in Price's future success as a composer.
Together, Price and Bonds began to achieve national recognition for their compositions and performances. In 1932, both Price and Bonds submitted compositions for the Wanamaker Foundation Awards. Price won first prize with her Symphony in E minor, and third for her Piano Sonata, earning her a $500 prize. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Frederick Stock, premiered the Symphony on June 15, 1933, making Price’s piece the first composition by an African-American woman to be played by a major orchestra.
A number of Price's other orchestral works were played by the WPA Symphony Orchestra of Detroit, the Chicago Women’s Symphony, and the Women's Symphony Orchestra of Chicago. Price wrote other extended works for orchestra, chamber works, art songs, works for violin, organ anthems, piano pieces, spiritual arrangements, four symphonies, three piano concertos, and a violin concerto. She made considerable use of characteristic African-American melodies and rhythms in many of her works. Price was inducted into the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers in 1940 for her work as a composer.
On June 3, 1953, Price died from a stroke in Chicago at age 66. Following her death, much of her work was overshadowed as new musical styles emerged that fit the changing tastes of modern society. Some of her work was lost, but as more African-American and female composers have gained attention for their works, so has Price. In 2009, a substantial collection of her works and papers were found in an abandoned dilapidated house on the outskirts of St. Anne, Illinois. These consisted of dozens of her scores, including her two violin concertos and her fourth symphony. As Alex Ross stated in The New Yorker in February 2018, "Not only did Price fail to enter the canon; a large quantity of her music came perilously close to obliteration. That run-down house in St. Anne is a potent symbol of how a country can forget its cultural history."
The below photo shows Florence Price's abandoned home in St. Anne, Illinois where dozens of her unpublished works were found more than 50 years after her death.
Nimble Feet (1953): Nimble Feet is the first movement of Price's Dances In The Canebrakes. It was composed the same year of her death, making it one of her final compositions. The composition is very rhythmic and is reminiscent of early ragtime music.
Silk Hat and Walking Cane (1953): Silk Hat and Walking Cane is the third movement of Price's Dances In The Canebrakes. The compositional style is reminiscent of the Cakewalk - a pre-Civil war dance performed by slaves on plantation grounds. Once again, Price displays her gift for creating infectious melodies.
Locating The Music
Compositions for Piano
At the Cotton Gin (1927)
Fantasie nègre (1929)
Cotton Dance (1931)
Piano Sonata in E minor (1932)
3 Little Negro Dances (1933)
3 Sketches for little pianists (1937)
Arkansas Jitter (1938)
Bayou Dance (1938)
Dance of the Cotton Blossoms (1938)
Rocking chair (1939)
2 Fantasies on Folk Tunes (date unknown)
Memories of Dixieland (1947)
Dances in the Canebrakes (1953)