2018: The Year of Florence

This post originally appeared in Jordan Randall Smith’s blog, The Composer’s Notebook.

65 years after her death, one of the twentieth century’s most important voices has finally begun to receive the attention she so richly deserves. Florence Beatrice Price, born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887, was the first African-American woman to have a composition performed in concert by a major American orchestra. Her first symphony was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Frederick Stock at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. Prior, she studied organ and piano at the New England Conservatory and caught the attention of composer George Chadwick, who was also the Director of NEC at the time. Chadwick took Price on as a composition student.

After her death in 1953, Price maintained a loyal following among a small but dedicated group of scholars, performers, organizations, and connoisseurs who diligently put forward a range of scholarly editions, papers, recordings, documentaries, and performances carrying the torch forward. However, 2018 has, by any standard, been a banner year for the composer. Here are a list of the significant developments that have collectively helped to advance Price’s music into the public sphere as never before.

I’ve collected seven of the defining moments of 2018 that helped make this Florence Price’s breakout year. 

Media Coverage

Two significant stories in the Times and The New Yorker came out within days of one another in early February of this year. A mention in one of the nation’s taste-making publications is a point of pride for any composer. To receive a mention as a classical composer in the year 2018 is decreasingly uncommon and increasingly significant. To have an entire article written about a composer is all the more special. It follows that these twin articles served to ignite a level of interest and public consciousness about Price and her music that surpassed all previous reach. In fact, I am among the many who jumped on the Price bandwagon thanks to these stories.

While this coverage was doubtless a net good for spreading awareness, many scholars, music journalists, and other interested parties engaged in a lively discussion on Twitter and the blogosphere about taking great care with the term “rediscovered” in the context of Florence Price. In particular, Price scholars such as Kori Hill and Doug Shadle took time to explain why it is inappropriate to refer to Price herself as a “rediscovered “composer, primarily because it has the effect of erasing the excellent scholarship and performance efforts made by individuals such as Rae Linda Brown, Mei Ann Chen, and Barbara Garvey Jackson, to name only a few. What is conflated in these headlines is the fact that a large cache of Price’s works were lost and later rediscovered. 

Rae Linda Brown’s efforts are particularly important and her end, particularly tragic: Brown passed away in 2017, only months before the flowering of activity seen throughout 2018. A moving tribute was recently published in the Bulletin of the Society for American Music.


A Major Premiere

The composers with the most staying power often tend not to peak during their own lifetime. Mahler, Schubert, and Mozart are just a few of the composers that come immediately to mind who did not have the opportunity to hear their last and best works performed during their lifetimes. Price was no exception and her Symphony No. 4 was among those many great works she did not get to hear performed. However, in this case, it was a full 65 years after Price’s death before this work would grace a stage. John Jeter led the Ft. Smith Symphony in this performance in May. The recording of this work will be released on the Naxos label in January of 2019.

Documents Galore

At the center of the world of Price Scholarship sits the Florence Price Special Collection at the University of Arkansas. This collection houses the largest number of documents, manuscripts, and Price ephemera of any library worldwide. The physical location is:

1 University of Arkansas
Fayetteville, AR 72701

Perhaps equally as important, a far-reaching collection of these documents have been digitized and are available freely to the public on the University of Arkansas website; no academic login required. This project was completed in April 2018. I have had a wonderful time exploring these incredible archives and have discovered a range of interesting content. This one brief quote caught my attention as it pertains to Price’s lifetime commitment to infusing a large number of her works with Folk Songs (specifically, African-American Spirituals)  and other folk-like musical elements (such as the Juba dance rhythms).