By Sigurd Neubauer
Nearly 70 years after her death, American composer Florence B. Price (née Smith, 1887-1953) is enjoying a formidable renaissance. With over 300 classical music compositions to her name, spanning every genre except for opera, Price’s Symphony No. 3, The Mississippi River Suite and The Oak are emerging as classic Americana in style and routed in the African-American experience.
Legacy recording companies such as Deutsche Grammophon, among others, have recorded her work in recent years featuring some of today’s leading orchestras.
Across the United States, classical radio stations are now playing Price’s music on a regular basis and new arrangements adopted, including recently by The New York Philharmonic’s Anthony McGill in his “Adoration” for clarinet and piano.
Much of the credit for Price’s postmortem popularity, although she was recognized during her lifetime as a major composer, can be directly attributed to a comprehensive biography of the composer by Rae Linda Brown (University of Illinois Press, 2020).
Tragically, however, Brown (1953-2017) died prior to the release of her landmark biography as she did not live to experience the profound impact her scholarship would have on Price’s national revival.
Brown, a former professor at the University of Michigan, dedicated her academic career to Price upon discovering her Symphony No 3 as a graduate student at Yale University during the 1980s. She began the research for her book a decade later.
“Everyone who works on Price scholarship owes a great deal of debt to Rae Linda Brown,” says Linda Holzer, a pianist and professor of music at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Holzer compares Brown’s contribution to restoring Price’s legacy as one of America’s preeminent composers to Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s indispensable role in revitalizing Johan Sebastian Bach’s music, who after his death in 1750, had largely been forgotten by the musical establishment at the time.
Stylistically, Holzer describes Price as a composer in the tradition of Johannes Brahms and Sergei Rachmaninoff whose music is difficult to perform, “which is why it is so passionate and beautiful,” Holzer says.
She adds that Price’s piano compositions favors “lyrical melodies and rich harmonic structures, with plentiful use of virtuoso figures in dramatic climaxes,” which were composed from the 1920s through the early 1950s.
Deutsche Grammophon recorded her work in recent years featuring some of today’s leading orchestras
Price had also adopted a nationalist approach to composition as she wanted to showcase American themes.
In her nationalistic approach, Price shares a common bond with her fellow American composers such as George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and Charles Ives, as well as with Czech composers Antonin Dvorak, and Bedrich Smetana, Holzer argues. “Consider Price’s Mississippi River Suite of 1934 in relation to Smetana’s The Moldau. Both works reflect a composer’s love of homeland and nature,” the professor notes.
“Price’s music speaks for itself,” Holzer points out, adding that “one does not have to know anything about Price’s history to appreciate her music.”
Returning to the Mendelssohn-Bach analogy, the professor explains that every time a composer falls out of the standard repertoire of the time, for whatever reason, restoring its legacy depends on people hearing, appreciating, and championing the music, which is what Brown did for Price.
In fact, Brown once declared: “My identity has become intertwined with hers,” according to her sister Carlene J. Brown.
There are several artistic similarities between Price and Brown who also happened to be professional organists, Holzer says.
Academic Rae Linda Brown published a comprehensive biography in 2020
Price, who studied the organ and composition at The New England Conservatory of Music (1903-06) composed her first symphony there.
As an organist and composer, Price joined the ranks of the great composers Mendelssohn; Frantz Liszt and Camille Saint-Saens, who were also acclaimed organists.
“Price, with her training in both virtuoso organ and piano music and composition, was similarly skillful. It is not a surprise that a gifted organist with training as a composer would be gifted at orchestration for symphonic music, because organ stops offer different colors of sound. In that sense, an organ is like an orchestra,” Holzer explains.
Price, a child-prodigy who began studying music at four, was born into a wealthy African-American family in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Brown dedicates the first five chapters to Price’s upbringing in Arkansas, highlighting that it was in the local churches where she was introduced to African-African spirituals upon which she would later draw inspiration for her compositions. Price’s community played an important role in her development as a composer, a key theme in Brown’s biography.
Price enjoyed formidable success during her lifetime, including by having the Chicago Symphony Orchestra perform her First Symphony under the baton of Frederick Stock.
Stock, a German immigrant, wanted to feature American music. “When he learned that Price had won a competition, he offered that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra premier it. He deserves tremendous credit for providing Price with the coveted platforms,” Holzer says.
“Everyone who works on Price scholarship owes a great deal of debt to Rae Linda Brown,” says Linda Holzer, a professor of music at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock
Describing Price as an equal to legendary American composer Copland, Holzer points out that their contemporaries were William Grant Still, R. Nathaniel Dett, William Dawson, John Aldon Carpenter, Ulysses Kay, Marian Anderson, and Gershwin. “All of them knew of each other’s work and were supportive of one another,” Holzer reveals. She adds that Gershwin attended the premier of Price’s First Symphony, who had been a guest of Carpenter.
“Scholars are still developing an understanding of her style, understanding the history of that time period,” Holzer explains and provides Price’s decision to travel from Chicago to Little Rock in 1935 to provide a benefit concert at the Dunbar High School as an example.
“Price wanted to give back as she recognized that her success in Chicago was rooted in the community where she had grown up,” Holzer says. She points out that Price had left Little Rock in 1929 for Chicago after a horrific lynching outside of her husbands’ law practice, which Brown documents in the biography.
“The concert was a huge success and her music is a tribute to Arkansas in a very moving way,” Holzer says.
Despite Price’ professional successes in her lifetime, which included Marian Anderson performing her works during a historic concert before a racially integrated audience of more than 75,000 people and a radio audience in the millions during a concert at the Lincoln Memorial steps in Washington on April 9, 1939, the composer also experienced racial discrimination, and domestic abuse from her jalouse husband, Brown writes.
Yet, Price kept composing. By the early 1950s, she had established an international reputation and was invited to England and France to have her work performed. On June 3, 1953, Price died after having been admitted to a hospital only two days prior to her scheduled departure for Europe.
Pianist Linda Holzer says that one does not have to know anything about Price’s history to appreciate her music
A frequent performer of Price’s music, Holzer has made it her task to introduce Price’s music to Arkansas. “Price and Still were neighbors and both of them accomplished historical firsts in classical music,” she says, adding that many Arkansans know that Johnny Cash is from their state but wants to extend the awareness to classical music.
“The people of Arkansas are responding curiously and warmly to Price’s music,” says Holzer, pointing out that “classical music is also part of the state’s heritage.”
Also commenting on Price’s music and how it has inspired her as concert pianist and composer, Karen Walwyn, a Mellon Faculty Fellow, and Howard University Area Coordinator of Keyboard Studies, says:
“Having been introduced to the music of Price was a life changer for me. As a pianist, studying her music helped me to develop a sense of artistry on a level I never thought I could imagine. Her music forces one to look closely at the intricate weaving of fabrics not commonly brought together. Her slave-like thematic lines, Old Southern harmonies, Juba dance rhythms, fanciful and spirited melodies and gestures combined with European structures and styles all make for a most delicately expressive art form unparalleled by any other American composer of this time-period.”
Many of her titles remind us of the struggles of the African American that span over the past 400 years – Pianist and composer Karen Walwyn
On how Price’s music fits into the broader American culture, Walwyn emphasizes that her compositions speak of her ancestry, and of the beauty of life as it evolves.
“Many of her titles remind us of the struggles of the African American that span over the past 400 years but it also speaks of strength, love and triumphs that signify new breath for our American music. Her composition is extraordinarily communicative and the messages that her music delivers bring tears of joy and hope for freedom and unity as we look towards a more beautiful tomorrow,” Walwyn says.
Price’s musical legacy represents indeed some of the very best of American culture. Through her meticulous biography, “The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price,” Brown has played an indispensable role in helping the composer reclaim her place in history.