It was a summer’s day in June 1933, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was tuning up. A strange sound filtered from the podium, harmonious and ear piercing in equal measure. The audience shifted and muttered in anticipation. Among them sat 46-year-old Florence Price, whose Symphony No 1 in E Minor was about to have its orchestral debut.
Florence was on the cusp of making history. This was the night she would become the first Black woman to have her music performed by an orchestra of this calibre.
Founded in 1891, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was already one of the “big five” orchestras in the United States, and frequently ranked among the best in the world. Although Black, English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor dubbed “the Black Mahler” for his compositional ability, had had his music performed on this scale, never before had a Black woman been in this position.
And Florence was not the only “first” in the room. Her former student and family friend, 20-year-old Margaret Bonds, would perform a concertino for piano and orchestra, becoming the first Black female soloist to play as a guest with the Chicago orchestra.
In 1933, the core orchestra was all-male, and entirely white. Helen Kotas would be hired as principal horn in 1941, becoming the first full-time female member. But the orchestra would not hire a Black musician to perform as a full-time member until 2002, when Tage Larsen was appointed as fourth trumpet.
In 1933, the audience was mostly white, too. Despite theatres being desegregated in 1897, the Auditorium Theatre in downtown Chicago was in an area dominated by wealthy, white families.
Florence’s Symphony in E Minor played – a soaring, spiritual and spectral piece of art.
The Chicago Daily News, one of the most widely read newspapers in the city, called it “a faultless work, a work that speaks its own message with restraint and yet with passion … worthy of a place in the regular symphonic repertory”.
Written in 1931 and early 1932, the symphony generally followed the traditional four-movement structure, while also displaying the individuality and influences of its author. The third movement, called Juba Dance, was inspired by a percussive West African style of music that was brought to the US by enslaved people, and African drums were used alongside traditional orchestral writing.
‘Music goes deep’
A notoriously private person, Florence left little behind to give the world a sense of her voice, her opinions, her feelings.
She “preferred to reveal herself through her music rather than through correspondence and memorabilia,” wrote the late Rae Linda Brown, in her biography of the composer, called, The Heart of a Woman.
She kept a diary, yet only a few pages remain, as, after her death, sections were given away to friends and family as mementos, leaving only a few pages from the last decade of her life.
However, from the pages left behind – an eclectic mix of to-do lists, recorded conversations, and perceptive observations – a picture is painted of a highly intelligent, introspective woman whose love for music went far beyond her own creations.
In her own words: “Music, like religion, goes deep.”
With music in her blood
In 1887, Florence Beatrice Smith was born in Little Rock, Arkansas with music in her blood. Her mother, also called Florence Smith, was a singer and pianist, and her father, Dr James Smith, was a dentist. They were well-respected and well-off.
The family was part of a “small, but powerful Black elite … [bearing] all the earmarks of gentility,” Brown wrote. Educated professionals like Dr Smith were afforded “certain privileges” and more respect in Little Rock, a city often referred to as a “paradise” for Black people in the South, where they made up more than a third of the city’s population.
By the time Florence was an adult, the anti-Black Jim Crow laws had been passed, enforcing segregation and systematically tearing away the “certain privileges” her family had once enjoyed.
In 1903, when she was 16 years old, Florence enrolled at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, a prestigious integrated school. Yet for a while, she told people she was of Mexican descent, on the advice of her mother who worried about the reception her daughter would receive, and listed her hometown in their records as “Pueblo, Mexico”.
Brown observed that “the fact that [Florence] was fair enough to pass for [Mexican] in no way lessens the significance of her achievements, but it attests to the key role that skin color played for Americans in achieving one’s career goals.”
Boston was a world away from her life in Arkansas, more than 1,400 miles (2,253km) away, but it was no paradise. Despite segregation in public schools and transportation being prohibited in Massachusetts, discrimination remained.
Florence graduated from the Conservatory with honours in 1906, at the age of 19. After leaving Boston, she taught music in Arkansas before moving to Atlanta, Georgia, where, in 1910, she became head of music at Clark Atlanta University, a historically Black institution. She became “a formidable teacher and a beacon of light for all her students … the model of an elite Black woman,” wrote Brown.
In 1912, Florence married Thomas J Price, a successful lawyer. They met and married in Atlanta, but soon moved back to Little Rock. During the next 15 years, she had three children: Florence, Edith, and finally a son, Thomas Jr, who died in infancy. During this time, Florence did not see “herself as a serious composer”, Brown explained, and focused instead on writing simple pieces for the purpose of teaching.
Then, on April 30, 1927, a white child was murdered in Little Rock. The body of 12-year-old Floella McDonald was found in the belfry of the First Presbyterian church by the building’s janitor. Police soon arrested a mixed-race 17-year-old named Lonnie Dixon – the janitor’s son – and transported the Dixons out of Little Rock to the Texarkana city jail for their own safety. Tensions in the city rose as white protesters called for revenge.
A few days later, on May 4, a Black man named John Carter was accused of harassing a white woman and her daughter on the outskirts of Little Rock. Armed groups patrolled the city searching for the 38-year-old, and, upon finding him, hanged him from a telephone pole. Carter’s corpse was shot, and dragged by cars through the city, stopping at the corner of 9th Street and Broadway, then the heart of Little Rock’s Black community, near to Thomas J Price’s office on 9th Street.
More 5,000 white people rioted in the area, setting Carter’s body ablaze, using doors and church pews from local buildings to fuel the fire. It took three hours for Governor John Martineau to order the Arkansas National Guard to disperse the crowds.
The Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper, reported that in the following days, more than 400 Black people left the city fearing for their lives, many heading north. The Defender was later banned from circulation in Little Rock, out of “concern” it would “stir up” racial tensions.
Chicago’s Black Renaissance
The Price family was part of the exodus from Little Rock. They moved to Chicago, along with six million Black Americans who left the South for the North during what became known as the Great Migration from 1915 to 1970.
But two years after moving to Chicago, in 1929, the Wall Street Crash and ensuing Great Depression caused Thomas to lose his job. Financial stress began to take its toll on him and their marriage. In 1931, Florence filed for divorce after nearly 20 years of marriage.
Struggling financially, Florence and her daughters moved in with the family of her friend and student Margaret Bonds, whose mother, Estella, was a leading light in Chicago’s vivacious musical community.
Living in the Bond household, Florence was immersed in a vibrant, creative community of people during the Chicago Black Renaissance – a period spanning the 1930s to 1950s when creativity and racial consciousness was promoted, similar to the earlier Harlem Renaissance in New York.
Soon, Florence became the director of the Chicago Treble Clef Club, a group that organised recitals and events around the city. She was an active member of the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM), an organisation that – to this day – is dedicated to uplifting and preserving the music of African Americans.
Through the NANM, Florence met luminaries such as contralto Marian Anderson, and trombonist, composer and musicologist William L Dawson. This new environment, surrounded by like-minded Black musicians, gave Florence the impetus to write large-scale works, progressing from shorter spiritual arrangements to orchestral symphonies.
“It was in Chicago that Price’s artistic impulse was liberated … she discovered a city full of vitality and an environment that was conducive to her creative energy,” Brown wrote.
Speaking to author Lindsay Patterson in 1967, Margaret Bonds recalled evenings around her kitchen table when “every brown-skinned musician in Chicago who could write a note” would help Florence meet her compositional deadlines. This community spirit helped Florence flourish.
A winning symphony
In 1932, Florence entered, and won first prize in, the Rodman Wanamaker Music Contest for her Symphony in E Minor. Founded in 1927 by philanthropist Rodman Wanamaker, the contest reflected his desire to create a platform for Black composers. Announced in the Chicago Defender, it was described as “an event of paramount importance open to all musical composers of the Race.” Margaret succeeded here, too, aged only 19, taking second place in the competition for her piece, Sea Ghost.
As the winner, Florence’s symphony caught the attention of Frederick Stock, the conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – leading to the 1933 performance that put her in the history books.
Opportunities like the Wanamaker Music Contest were few and far between for Black musicians. However, there were some who had found success, including Thomas Wiggins, whose parents had been enslaved, and who became the highest-paid pianist of the 19th century.