10 Reasons Why Florence Price Inspires Me

Elizabeth de Brito is a Florence Price fan, gender equality champion, classical music radio producer, researcher and writer. She is the Producer of The Daffodil Perspective, a radio show which champions gender equality in classical music. Elizabeth wrote the following as our first all-original blog post at the Price Fest Blog.

1. Her music is beautiful.

Florence Price’s music is the most beautiful you will ever hear and her music is easy to get into, it’s not complicated and difficult, it’s all gorgeous melodies. So much of classical music rhetoric is that it’s complex and you need to ‘understand it’. Florence Price’s music is a brilliant example that this is so not the case a lot of the time, all you need is to listen and enjoy. 

2. She was a woman who composed music.

Florence Price was one of the first woman composers I heard of in March last year. Up until that point I thought classical music had been written mostly by white men. So many people think that classical music was written more or less exclusively by white men, this is not actually the case, there have been (and are) hundreds of brilliant women who composed truly spectacular music but always struggled to get recognition in a world full of systemic prejudice and deep institutionalised sexism. Florence Price inspired me to start discovering them and championing them.

3. She was mixed race (like me).

Florence price was the 1st African American woman to be recognised a symphonic composer and the first to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered her Symphony in E Minor on June 15th, 1933. 

Florence Price was born in 1887 and grew up in Arkansas in Southern USA during the era of harsh Jim Crow laws of segregation. Florence was actually denied musical education in her town because of her skin colour so was taught piano by her mother, then she was later denied further university study in the south and enrolled at the New England Conservatory in Boston. Even there her mother wanted her to initially identify as Mexican because of racist attitudes.

Florence Price overcame a huge amount of obstacles to become a composer and be recognised as one by society.

4. She was brave.

Not only did Florence overcome all these obstacles but she was aware of them. 

In 1943 she wrote a now infamous letter to the conductor of the Boston Symphony, Dr Koussevitsky, saying “To begin with I have two handicaps, that of sex and race. I am a woman and I have negro blood in my veins. Knowing the worst, would you be good enough to hold in check the inclination to regard a womans composition as long on emotionalism and short on virility and thought content until you have examined some of my work?” In just two sentences acknowledging the obstacles she faced and then dismissing them. Asking a world famous, respected conductor just to listen to her music, without judgement on anything else but the quality? I mean, Florence was a legend of diplomacy. Dr Koussevitsky never actually went on to perform any of Price’s music. We can only speculate that his mind was already made up when he saw the words woman and negro but we shall never know. 

5. She overcame personal obstacles.

This letter demonstrates not only the societal challenges Florence triumphed over but the individual ones as well. Florence Price was apparently a very shy person. She said ‘I am poor at pushing publicity when it comes to myself’ Price was less aggressive by nature but she was involved with several supportive groups including Women’s Symphony Orchestra and National Association of Negro Musicians and she saw her music promoted across Chicago and further afield.

6. She was proud of her heritage.

Florence Price displays both sides of her heritage and experience in her music. Her music is influenced by African American spirituals that she grew up with and heard in church. Some of it is expressed with little quotations here and there in the music like her piano masterpiece Fantasie Negre. Sometimes it’s original music with similar structures to African music such as Symphony No. 3, and sometimes it’s arrangements of spirituals themselves, in the case of some of her art songs such as My Souls Been Anchored to the Lord.

In all of these different forms Florence was never merely reproducing folk music. It wasn’t about expressing traditions of ancestors long gone, Florence’s music acknowledges the past in a way that is not sentimental or nostalgic. It’s more like representing this constant flow of artistry that started in Africa, developed in America, merging with European classical forms in the present and then looking forward to the future as well.  

I like to imagine that her music is a metaphor for herself, a mixed race woman surrounded by white people, particularly the classical music world she inhabited.

7. Florence Price had a difficult family life.

Florence Price was married with 2 children but when her husband lost his job he became abusive and she divorced him in 1931. Times got so tough at one point she moved in with one of her students Margaret Bonds (also an awesome composer btw). Divorced women even then faced stigma from society, it wasn’t as socially acceptable so Florence was very courageous to make that step.

8. Late Bloomer

Florence Price was 47 when her Symphony in E Minor was premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and she became well known as a composer. She graduated from university at 19 and wrote several pieces over the years but it was the Symphony that was her 1st major work. It was the first piece to gain her widespread recognition and finally enable her to work full time as a composer.

Such a lesson here for all of us not living up to our potential or not having found our niche in life. Florence Price wrote the first of her large scale works at 47 and went to have a successful compositional career, it’s never too late. Keep on striving, if you haven’t found your passion yet keep on searching for it and if you have found your raison d’etre don’t stop working on it until you get where you want to go. Just like Florence.

9. Her legacy

Florence Price was a trailblazer for black and mixed race women. Not only the 1st African American woman to write a symphony, Florence Price was the first African-American member of the Chicago Club of Women Organists and Musician’s Club Of Women. She was also inducted into the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers and may have been one of the first women of colour in the organisation.

Florence was recognised and honoured for her achievements, both during her life and after her death in 1953. The Florence B. Price Study Guild in 1940 and the Florence B. Price Elementary School in 1964 in Chicago were both named in her honour. Well known singer Leontyne Price (no relation) performed her work in the 70’s, several dissertations have been written about her by Rae Linda Brown [1], Marquese Carter [2] and Erin Hobbs [3] amongst others. Pianist Samantha Ege [4] is completing hers as we speak as well as being part of the growing group of people championing Florence Price’s music across the globe. Florence Price continues to inspire people everywhere, particularly black and mixed race women.

10. She is my hero 

Anyone who follows me on social media and listens to my show knows I’m a teeny bit obsessed with Florence Price. There is a reason, apart from all the others already listed that show how incredible she was. I have a very personal connection with her, her music and her story. 

I heard Price’s Symphony in E Minor for the first time in March 2018 and for the first time in my life I felt whole. I’m mixed race, just like Florence, and I’m English. Growing up in England with a black mother and a white father I always felt like there were two halves constantly at odds within me. My identity has always been called into question. Even now I’m still constantly demanded to justify and defend my existence. Not only that but I’m requested to explain my expression of the various parts of my heritage. It’s an ongoing struggle and can be pretty exhausting.

When I listen to Florence Price’s music it’s not like that. Florence Price makes me feel intact. The two sides of my identity are not in dissonance. Florence Price’s music makes me think that I don’t have to choose between my Mum’s blackness and my Dad’s whiteness, or even that my own unique blend is in question. She makes me feel complete.

Until I heard the music of Florence Price, specifically her Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, I thought my love for classical music had died long ago. As it turns out it wasn’t extinct, just dormant. It was waiting for the right spark, waiting for Florence Price’s music to bring my passion back to life.