Strong, Amazing Women - pt. 3
After struggling to find another song or two to fill the 15-minute suggestion for this project, I almost resigned myself to learning a quick Fanny Mendelssohn lieder. Then I discovered Florence Price.
While Florence and I are both alumni of the New England Conservatory (she graduated with a Bachelors Degree in Organ and Piano Performance in 1906, at a time when the institution was one of the few music schools accepting Black students - I earned my Masters there 110 years later), I sadly don’t remember her name or work coming up in my American Song Repertoire course. I knew instantly when I heard her lush, prolific accompaniment and tuneful, impassioned vocal melodies that I needed to learn more and record her work as part of this project.
Florence Price was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887 into a mixed-race family. She took music lessons from her mother when none of the prominent White piano teachers in the area would agree to teach her. At age four, she performed in her first piano recital; at age 11, she published her first original composition. After graduating from NEC and returning to Little Rock, racial tensions that resulted in a public lynching was the driving force behind Price relocating to Chicago, Illinois. There, she blossomed as a composer when her First Symphony won a composing prize, which attracted the attention of Frederick Stock, the conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Her First Symphony was a blend of American and European musical traditions: “Cathedral chimes glisten in the serene slow movement, where a brass choir converses with delicate winds. In the third movement, African drums accompany a syncopated ‘Juba Dance,’ a folk tradition that originated in Angola and moved, with slaves, to American plantations” (Tom Huizenga, NPR).
Florence and her music were well-received in Chicago. Marian Anderson, who later became the first African-American singer to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955, concluded her iconic 1939 Lincoln Memorial concert with an arrangement of “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord” written by Florence. While she was celebrated in her day, the obstacles she faced in earning national and international recognition are no mystery, as Florence herself clearly identified them in a 1943 letter to the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra: “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.” To make ends meet in the face of inequity, Price earned money with the sales of her piano music, by playing organ for silent movie screenings, composing jingles and popular music for Chicago radio station WGN, and entering song competitions. Her original setting of Langston Hughes’ poem cycle, Songs to a Dark Virgin, was debuted by Marian Anderson and later performed by other leading Black vocalists, Roland Hayes and Leontyne Price among them.
The racial and social setbacks of the era paired with Price’s untimely death of a stroke in 1953 at the age of 66 led to diminishing notoriety. In fact, 30 boxes of unpublished manuscripts (over 200 compositions) bearing Florence’s name were found in an abandoned house on the outskirts of St. Anne, Illinois in 2009. The dilapidated house had once been her summer home and these boxes of compositions came close to obliteration and obscurity. In my opinion, Florence Price is not just deserving of a resurrection, the American musical canon owes it to her.
One of Florence’s songs we recorded is “The Glory of the Day was in Her Face,” based on the poem by James Weldon Johnson, who uses personification and comparison, utilizing nature metaphors to describe how the woman he loves makes his world complete. The connection he highlights between women and nature reminds me of a quote by Leonor Fini, a surrealist painter who was known for her powerful depictions of strong and exotic women: “I find it much more natural to paint women than men. Women are more mythic, closer to their origins, intuitive, aware. They are more beautiful than men. Women are usually both divine and terrestrial, whereas men are bound to the earth.” If I didn’t think women were magical beings before then, that quote convinced me.
For so many women in music whose works we have lost to time and societal limitations, it wasn’t about finding their voice, it was about finding someone to listen. Now, women are not just part of the conversation, we’re leading the conversation about equity and respect in the arts. It’s my hope that this trend continues so the work of those women who came before us, which fell on deaf ears at the time, can be appreciated for their excellence now. May the stories of Régine, Rebecca, and Florence inspire you to make some musical discoveries of your own!