Sound Out presenter Ian McGlynn profiles one of this week's featured composers – Florence Price, the first female African-American symphonic composer.

"We are waking up to the fact pregnant with possibilities that we already have a folk music in the Negro spirituals – music which is potent, poignant, compelling. It is simple heart music and therefore powerful."  - Florence Price.

Florence Beatrice Price was a prolific composer and pianist. Her Symphony in E Minor was premiered by the esteemed Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933 and seemed a success; the Chicago Daily News called it "a faultless work...that speaks its own message with restraint and yet with passion … worthy of a place in the regular symphonic repertory."

Yet despite this seeming success, Price's significant and ground-breaking symphony was forgotten, and never published. Because while women composers of the time struggled for recognition because of gender discrimination, Price suffered doubly because of her race.

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Price (originally Smith) was born in 1887 into a middle-class family living in Little Rock, Arkansas. Her mother was a music teacher and an enterprising businesswoman, while her father was a dentist, inventor and artist. At age 16, Florence left to study in Boston and initially taught after graduation, before becoming head of music at Clark University in Atlanta, an astonishing achievement for a woman of colour at the time. 

In 1932 she won a range of prizes at the Wanamaker Music Composition Contest for works including her Symphony in E minor and Piano Sonata. The Symphony attracted the attention of Frederick Stock, music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the time, who arranged for the orchestra to perform it. Price's music blended songs and melodies of the African-American spiritual tradition but presented in a 'classical' European form, something Dvorak replicated in his famous New World Symphony

But while Dvorak's work appears in concert halls and compilations such as The Best Classical Album Ever – No, We Really Mean it This time..., Price’s Symphony in E Minor faded into obscurity. Price even wrote to condcutor Serge Koussevitzky, begging for consideration:

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.

Fame did come Price’s way soon after, although it was fleeting. Contralto Marian Anderson performed her arrangement of My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord at an Easter Sunday concert at Lincoln Memorial in 1939. With a live radio broadcast and an assembled crowd of 75,000 people, Price’s work found its largest-ever audience. 

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Today Florence Price's considerable body of work is proving increasingly popular and relevant. This is thanks (in part) to the chance discovery in 2009 of a major collection of lost manuscripts, scores and other papers in a derelict building. And in 2020, artists are finding that Price’s music is finding a new, appreciative audience.

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Ian McGlynn presents Sound Out every Friday evening 9-10pm on RTÉ lyric fm, repeated Sunday 9-10pm. A weekly digest of the best Irish and international new music and new releases - listen back here.