Florence Price’s heartfelt Andante moderato offers a full measure of her talent

Florence Price

In 2009, a couple began to renovate a dilapidated house they had purchased in St. Anne, a tiny community little more than an hour south of Chicago, in Kankakee County. Scattered across the floor and in piles stacked around the house, they found handwritten pages of music. Many were signed: Florence Price. This had been her summerhouse, long ago abandoned. That discovery jump-started the renaissance of one of this country’s important musical figures, a Black woman composer with strong ties to Chicago — and to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — whose music had long been overlooked, neglected, and dismissed. 

Price had moved to Chicago with her family in 1927, making the Great Migration followed by thousands of Black Americans fleeing the terrors of living in the south and hoping to find a land of opportunity in Chicago. Price grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. Her father, Dr. James H. Smith, a prosperous dentist, was one of Little Rock’s most highly respected Black men. She attended the same segregated schools as William Grant Still (eight years younger), another groundbreaking Black composer. In 1903, Price began studies at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, completing the four-year program in three years and graduating with diplomas in both piano and organ, the only student to receive two degrees that year.

After graduation, Price set aside her musical ambitions; she returned to Little Rock to teach and lived at home with her parents. After her father died in 1910, her mother sold all the family possessions, decided to pass for white, moved back to her hometown of Indianapolis, and vanished into the society of the majority. Price moved from one teaching job to another, continued to give organ and piano recitals, married Thomas Jewell Price (the attorney who had helped settle Dr. Smith’s estate), started a family, and settled into a comfortable mid­dle-class life in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Little Rock. Aside from the song she wrote after the birth of her first child, “To My Little Son,” she rarely found the time to compose anything.

But she did not give up. She spent the sum­mers of 1926 and 1927 in Chicago, where she studied composition at Chicago Musical College — and no doubt realized that this was the place to build her career and live a better life — remote from the rising racial tension in Little Rock and the attacks and crimes and lynching that had begun to spread throughout the city, sweeping into her family’s own neighborhood. Her arrival in Chicago placed her on the cusp of the Black Chicago Renaissance.

But even in Chicago, composing music did not come easily. After the Depression, her husband was often without work; he grew angry and abusive. He moved out of the family house in March 1930. The next January, Price was granted a divorce and custody of their two daughters. By then, she had begun to write music on a larger scale, reflecting a new certainty that composing was her calling. The Andante moderato played at these concerts is an arrangement, for string orchestra, of the slow movement from a string quartet in G major that she composed in 1929. She turned 42 that year.

In January 1931, Price began the score that would change her life — a symphony in E minor, her first big orchestral piece. She worked on the score for much of the year. Sometimes, to make ends meet, she accompanied silent films on the organ in movie houses along “The Stroll,” a stretch of South State Street between 26th and 39th streets, the heart of Chicago’s Black community. As she struggled to put her life back together and become the composer she wanted to be, in a world that viewed her through a prism of fierce prejudices, she cannot have dreamed that the most unlikely thing would happen — that Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony would give the world premiere of her symphony at the 1933 World’s Fair — the Century of Progress Exposition.

In the summer of 1932, Frederick Stock, the music director of the Chicago Symphony, had been named music advisor for the exposition, set in Chicago to honor the city’s centennial, and he began to look around for new scores that would represent the state of music in America. Although Stock did not know Price, he picked her unpublished first symphony as the center­piece of a concert to be given on June 15, 1933, in the Auditorium Theatre. Despite the excitement and the applause at that night’s concert, no one at the time entirely recognized the history-book significance of the occasion: this was the first performance of a large-scale composition by a Black woman composer given by one of the major U.S. orchestras.

For many years, Price’s story was one of inter­mittent recognition — in 1964, an elementary school on South Drexel Boulevard, in North Kenwood, near Price’s old neighborhood, was named for her — but very few performances. That has changed. The manuscripts discovered in St. Anne contained many lost works, including two violin concertos and a fourth symphony. Riccardo Muti had planned to give the first Chicago per­formances of Price’s Third Symphony, completed in 1940, in Orchestra Hall in the spring of 2020, but those concerts were among the first to be canceled in the pandemic. He will now con­duct the work in May 2022 — 89 years after the Orchestra unveiled her first symphony (her second is lost). The CSO's performances (captured in the video below) of her modest, heartfelt Andante moderato, with its ani­mated and exotic middle section, offer but a hint of Price’s full talent, too long silenced.

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