In 1935 the African-American writer and composer Shirley Graham could boast of the accomplishments of America's first African-American symphonists: William Grant Still, Florence B. Price and William Dawson. "Spirituals to Symphonies in less than fifty years! How could they even attempt it?" she asked in an article in which she recounts the development of African-American art music from the triumphs of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and their concert spiritual arrangements in 1871 to the critical acclaim of Dawson's Negro Folk Symphony, premiered by the Philadelphia Symphony under Leopold Stokowski in 1934. William Grant Still's Afro-American Symphony was premiered by the Rochester Philharmonic in 1931 and Florence Price's Symphony in E minor was premiered by the Chicago Symphony in 1933.
What was the impetus behind the creation of the first symphonies by African-American composers? The spiritual inspiration came from the music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, an Anglo-African composer and concert violinist who visited this country three times between 1904 and 1910 and who had won fame as a conductor and composer in England. Keenly interested in African-American folk music, Coleridge-Taylor wrote several compositions based loosely or directly on this source material including the well-known Twenty-Four Negro Melodies, Transcribed for the Piano (1905) and Symphonic Variations on an African Air (1906, based on the spiritual "I'm troubled in mind").
A more subtle but equally profound influence on African-American composers came from the "American" works of the Bohemian composer Antonin Dvorák who came to this country in 1892 to teach composition and to head the National Conservatory of Music in New York. During his three-year tenure here, the composer publicly advocated the use of African-American and Native-American folk music in composition to create a national American style. Dvorák heard African-American spirituals sung to him by his student Harry T. Burleigh, who would become one of America's most celebrated baritone soloists and composers. Dvorák ’s "American" works--the String Quartet, op. 96 and Quintet, Op. 97 and particularly the Symphony No. 9 From the New World, premiered by the New York Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall on December 15, 1893 --provided inspiration for a generation of American composers.
Thus, two internationally respected composers (and not coincidentally, both European) validated, for both black and white American composers, the beauty of African-American folk music and led the way for its use in instrumental forms.
Nationalism was the backdrop from which African-American composers in the 1920s and early 1930s adapted old artistic forms into self-consciously racial idioms. The affirmation of the values of the black cultural heritage had a decisive impact on Still, Price, and Dawson, who had as their primary goal the incorporation of Negro folk idioms, that is, spirituals, blues, and characteristic dance music in symphonic forms. In the orchestral music of these composers, the African-American nationalist elements are integral to the style. The deceptively simple musical structure of their orchestral music is inherently bound to the folk tradition in which they are rooted.
Florence Beatrice Smith Price was born in Little Rock, Arkansas on April 9,1887. After receiving her early music training from her mother, she attended the New England Conservatory of Music, graduating in 1906 after three years of study, with a Soloist’s diploma in organ and a Teacher's diploma in piano. There she studied composition with Wallace Goodrich and Frederick Converse and she studied privately with the eminent composer George W. Chadwick, the Director of the Conservatory.
After completing her degree, Price returned south to teach music at the Cotton Plant-Arkadelphia Academy in Cotton Plant, Arkansas (1906); Shorter College in North Little Rock, Arkansas (1907-1910); and Clark University in Atlanta (1910-1912). In 1927, now married and with two children, Florence Price and her family moved to Chicago to escape the racial tension in the south which, by the late 1920s, had become intolerable. Here Price established herself as a concert pianist, organist, teacher and composer.
Price's Symphony in E minor was written in 1931. In a letter to a friend she wrote, "I found it possible to snatch a few precious days in the month of January in which to write undisturbed. But, oh dear me, when shall I ever be so fortunate again as to break a foot!" The Symphony won the Rodman Wanamaker Prize in 1932, a national competition which brought her music to the attention of Frederick Stock, who conducted the Chicago Symphony in the world premiere performance of the work in June 15, 1933 at the Auditorium Theater. The Symphony won critical acclaim and marked the first symphony by an African-American woman composer to be played by a major American orchestra.
Price based the first movement of her Symphony on two freely composed melodies reminiscent of the African-American spiritual. The influence of Dvorák in the second theme is most evident. The second movement is based on a hymn-like melody and texture no doubt inspired by Price's interest in church music. This such melody is played by a ten-part brass choir. The jovial third movement, entitled "Juba Dance," is based on characteristic African-American ante-bellum dance rhythms. For Price, the rhythmic element in African-American music was of utmost importance. Referring to her Third Symphony (1940) which uses the Juba as the basis for a movement, she wrote "it seems to me to be no more impossible to conceive "of Negroid music devoid of the spiritualistic theme on the one hand than strongly syncopated rhythms of the juba on the other." The Symphony closes with a tour de force presto movement based on an ascending and descending scale figure.
Price died in 1953 after receiving many accolades during her career. She wrote over 300 compositions, including 20 orchestral works and over 100 art songs. Her music was in the repertoire of many important ensembles. In addition to the Chicago Symphony, these include the Michigan W. P. A. Symphony Orchestra, the Woman's Symphony Orchestra of Chicago, the U.S. Marine Band, and several chamber groups. Still widely performed, Price's songs were sung by many of the most renowned singers of her day including Marian Anderson for whom she wrote many of her art songs and spiritual arrangements, Ellabelle David, Etta Moten, Todd Duncan, and Blanche Thebom.
Florence B. Price is the first African-American woman composer to earn national recognition. A pioneer among women, she was much celebrated for her achievements in her time. With the resurgence of interest in her music, she is taking her place among those important composers of the 1930s and 1940s who helped to define America's voice in music. Price's music reflects the romantic nationalist style of the period but also the influence of her cultural heritage. Her music demonstrates that an African-American composer could transform received musical forms, yet articulate a unique American and artistic self.