OUT FOR A LITTLE DRIVE THIS EVENING and on the radio–Symphony Channel–came the loveliest, pastoral little piece–a suite of short dances actually. We had never heard them before.
Turns out they were by a composer we had not heard of, either. Florence Price was an African American (mixed race) composer–1887-1953–who died suddenly and unexpectedly from a stroke at age 66. In researching her story I found it was haunting and bittersweet. Extraordinarily musical and talented, she graduated at 14 in Little Rock Arkansas, as class valedictorian, then went off to study at the famous New England Conservatory of Music, where she passed as Mexican to avoid profound discrimination against African Americans. While there she found good mentors and wrote her first string trio and symphony.
She moved to Atlanta where she taught at a historically Black college. She married and the couple returned to Little Rock. But a series of terrible racial incidents, including a lynching, persuaded the couple to move north to Chicago. Financial struggles and abuse by her husband followed, and she became a single mother to two daughters. She continued composing, indefatigably and made some income as a theater organist for silent films. She eventually met and was befriended by Langston Hughes and Marian Anderson, prominent arts figures who aided her success as a composer. She wrote symphonies and all manner of compositions, scores of them, and won some prizes and recognition. But not a great deal.