Florence Price and the Politics of Her Existence

This article originally appeared in The Kapralova Society Journal. The following is an excerpt.

Platform, opportunity, and time are by no means the only elements that influence the construction of legacies, but to interrogate these man-made constructions is to recognize that they determine not only the trajectories of historical figures in real time but also the ex- tent to which such figures are recognized in the present day—if at all. This is evidenced by the discrepancies in the posthumous visibility of men and women composers. The myth that women did not compose “back then” is perpetuated in the contrasting treatments of legacy, which fail to recognize the historically limited platforms for women composers to elevate their works. The myth obscures how the opportunities for such composers may have varied greatly for different practitioners during their lifetime—opportunities to access these often exclusionary, yet influential spheres, find mobility in such spheres, and act in resistance to stereotyped expectations of gender and race. It both ignores and exempli- fies the fact that a woman composer’s time, particularly concerning that which she has committed to the mastery of her craft, receives an (under)valuation that is undoubtedly shaped by the politics of her existence.

On the fifth of July 1943, the American composer Florence Price (1887–1953) wrote to the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Serge Koussevitzky. She closed her letter with the question, “will you examine one of my scores?” However, the question was not as straightforward as it appeared, for the letter began:

My Dear Dr. Koussevitzky,
To begin with I have two handicaps— those of sex and race. I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins. Knowing the worst, then, would you be good enough to hold in check the possible inclination to regard a woman’ s composition as long on emotionalism but short on virility and thought con- tent;—until you shall have examined some of my work? As to the handicap of race, may I relieve you by saying that I neither expect nor ask any concession on that score. I should like to be judged on merit alone.

Price was not simply asking Koussevitzky to examine her scores; she was requesting that he do so without sexist or racist judgment. She recognized that she could not escape the stereotypes of her gender or race, and so she took it upon herself to foreground the politics of her existence—describing herself as a woman with some Negro blood in her veins— and then to consign her handicaps to the back- ground so that her music could take centre stage, as should ideally have been the case. The late Rae Linda Brown puts it succinctly: “Price tackles the issues of gender and race up-front by mentioning, then dismissing them.” In doing so, she encourages Koussevitzky to follow suit.

A photograph of Florence Price by G. Nelidoff, Rosenthal Archives, Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

A photograph of Florence Price by G. Nelidoff, Rosenthal Archives, Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Price’s letter exemplifies the ways in which her desire to elevate her work on a prestigious platform, access this traditionally white male territory, and invest greater time in cultivating her craft was also controlled by what these ideas meant for a woman composer of African descent in early mid-twentieth-century Amer- ica. Furthermore, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the limitations imposed by prejudicial notions about gender and race have lingered on long after Price’s death in 1953. As William Robin notes in a 2014 New York Times article on the role of race in concert music, “the Boston Symphony has yet to play a note of her music.” 

The concepts of platform, opportunity, and time can certainly shape much wider discourse concerning historical women practitioners, but the discourse be- comes even more enriched when it is applied to the complex inter- sections that constitute a single person’s life. In the present article, I focus on certain questions that have surfaced in my research on Price’s compositional voice and its place and reception in contem- poraneous efforts to create a “national” sound. Key questions in- clude: how did Price negotiate the obstacles of gender and race in her contributions to American music? How did she navigate her way around the hostilities in this territory to find opportunities within it? And how did she cultivate an aesthetic that is distinctly and intrinsically American? The answers to all these questions are entangled with the politics of her existence.

My research has identified four key phases in Price’s life, de- fined by her location, activity, and community. The first includes her early years in Arkansas (1887–1903); the second is marked by her studies at the New England Conservatory of Music (1903– 1906); the third follows her return to the South (1907–1927); and the fourth covers the Chicago years (1927–1953). These periods are used to structure a deeper exploration into how the factors of platform, opportunity and time—that are so central to the develop- ment of any composer—materialized in the context of Price’s life and circumstances.

Early Years in Arkansas (1887–1903)

Florence Beatrice Price, née Smith, was born in Little Rock, Ar- kansas. Her father, Dr. James H. Smith, was a dentist, and her mother, Florence Irene Gulliver, was an elementary school teacher. They married in 1876 and had three children: Charles, Gertrude, and Florence (the youngest).

Dr. Smith was born in 1843 to free parents in Camden, Dela- ware. He studied dentistry in Philadelphia and later established his own practice in Chicago during the 1860s. His practice, however, did not survive the Great Chicago Fire, and this prompted him to move to Arkansas. There, his Little Rock practice catered to an affluent and interracial clientele that included the Governor of Arkansas.

Dr. Smith’s biography is not representative of most African American lives during this time. In fact, in an era defined by the polarity of black and white, Dr. Smith’s position within the black elite of a cultured professional class afforded his family privileges and prospects that would remain out of reach for much of the black population. The Smiths belonged to a sociological minority called the Talented Tenth, a term coined by W. E. B. Du Bois in an eponymous essay that promoted the notion that social change was instigated by the leadership of the few who could apply their privilege and education to the cause of uplifting the race. In his seminal work, Du Bois illuminated his vision for racial uplift and the role to be played by an African American intelligentsia:

Education and work are the levers to uplift a people. Work alone will not do it unless inspired by the right ideals and guided by intelligence. Education must not simply teach work—it must teach Life. The Talented Tenth of the Negro race must be made leaders of thought among their people.

Contextualizing Price’s upbringing in the ideology of the Talented Tenth not only breaks down any misconception of a monolithic African American community but also emphasizes the interplay of intersecting identities within. Price’s class privilege, coupled with a notable racial ambiguity, enabled her greater potential for agency compared to poorer African Americans trapped in post-slavery subjugation. Her lighter skin complexion was a product of her mixed ancestry— “French, Indian and Spanish” on her mother’s side and “Negro, Indian and English” on her father’s side.6 Her skin tone, coupled with her extensive education and her mode of speech, granted her the possibility of distancing herself from a black racial identity. Yet, this was not the path she chose. Price embraced all aspects of her heritage; and, as a com- poser, she cultivated an aesthetic around her belief that “a national music very beautiful and very American can come from the melting pot just as the nation itself has done.”7Though Price’s circumstances did not offset the gender expec- tations or racial bias of her milieu, there is no doubt that her familial background helped foster the favourable conditions for her to emerge as the first American woman of African descent to achieve national and international recognition as a composer..

Century of Progress program (1933). Rosenthal Archives, Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Century of Progress program (1933). Rosenthal Archives, Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Price’s musical education began at the age of three with piano lessons from her mother. Her education extended to the integrated Allison Presbyterian Church in Little Rock, where she regularly heard the sacred works of Johann Sebastian Bach, Felix Mendelssohn and Ralph Vaughan Williams.8 Her academic growth outside of music was supported by the in- struction of Charlotte Andrews Stephens at the segregated Union School. Stephens was the first African American teacher in Little Rock. Though born into slavery, she recog- nized that her trajectory had been heavily influenced by what she called the “peculiar privileges” of her upbringing.9Stephens’ father, though enslaved, was committed to the task of educating fellow slaves as well as free men and women. Stephens’ mother further provided for the family through her laundry business, even during her enslavement. Education and enterprise were certainly characteristic of Stephens’ upbring- ing and the path that followed. Her teaching career spanned seventy years; it began in 1869 when, as a fifteen-year-old, she stepped in to cover the class of her white teacher who was away with sickness. She retired in 1939, by which time she had pursued higher education at Oberlin College, Ohio, taught from elementary to high school level, served as a principal twice, and had a school named in her honour.

Price was one of the many students to benefit from Stephens’ passion and dedication. Another student was Wil- liam Grant Still, a family friend of the Smiths who would go on to be known as the Dean of African American composers and a key actor in the Harlem Renaissance. Records do not con- firm Stephens’ specific role in the musical education of Price or Still, but Barbara Garvey Jackson postulates that Stephens most likely would have encouraged their musical inclinations and gifts.10 Stephens was known to have catered to the need for rec- reational outlets in Little Rock by organizing communal enter- tainment in the form of skits, concerts and games.11 Whether or not Price and Still participated in these events is, again, uncon- firmed, but this detail certainly lends support to Jackson’s theory.

Like Stephens, Price’s circumstances were advantaged by her own set of peculiar privileges; and, like Stephens, Price set about devoting her time, energy, and resources to pursuing the path for which she seemed so destined. Stephens and Price were both six- teen years of age when they entered the academic worlds of Ober- lin College and the New England Conservatory of Music, respec- tively. However, it must be recognized that Stephens was raised in the era of slavery and committed to the uplift of her race as a direct result of her experiences. In contrast, Price was raised in a generation that had moved somewhat beyond its predecessor’s experiences. Price’s relative privilege meant that there was a de- gree of freedom in her decision to immerse herself in African American culture. Indeed, Price’s trajectory can be seen as a variation on the themes of education and enterprise that were so prevalent in Stephens’ life and so redolent of the Talented-Tenth ideology, long before the term even came into existence. Thus, despite the parallels in their lives, there was a great disparity in the circumstances that encased the politics of their being.

The New England Conservatory of Music (1903–1906)

Price’s pursuit of musical study at the New England Conserva- tory was by and large determined by which institutions would accept ethnic minority candidates; but even so, Price was encour- aged to exercise caution in her own application. In an act of pres- ervation, Price’s mother presented Pueblo, Mexico, as Price’s hometown.12 The New England Conservatory did include African American students in its admissions policy, but such a policy could not overturn centuries of social conditioning and ensure Price’s protection from her contemporaries’ derivative attitudes. Price’s mother capitalized on her daughter’s racial ambiguity and, in doing so, etched a less stigmatized identity for her. Still, Price never forgot her heritage; and, as a composer, she would return to the New World Africanisms of her ancestors.

Price graduated with the highest honours, earning a double major in piano pedagogy and organ performance. She studied organ under the instruction of Henry M. Dunham, and she had clearly proven herself as an accomplished organist because on June 14, 1906, Price closed a concert featuring members of the graduating class with the first movement of her professor’s So- nata in G minor for Organ.13 Her studies in instrumental perform- ance and pedagogy were accompanied by courses in composition and counterpoint with George Whitefield Chadwick, (director of the New England Conservatory), Frederick Converse, and Benja- min Cutter. Under Chadwick, Price began to explore black folk idioms as source material for serious composition.14 This concept had, however, been brought to mainstream attention a decade before Price enrolled at the conservatory.

In 1893, Antonín Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony had shaken the American musical landscape, as had his contro- versial yet highly progressive statements about the establish- ment of an American school of music. In an article called “The Real Value of Negro Melodies,” Dvořák is quoted as saying, “I am now satisfied that the future of this country must be founded upon what are called the negro melodies. . . . These beautiful and varied themes are the product of American soil. They are American.”15 Dvořák’s assertions were not widely embraced, but they certainly permeated the consciousness of many American composers.