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Florence Price - Beyond the First

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

She was the FIRST black female composer to be performed by a major orchestra...

and she was so much more. Experience Price’s music from across her lifespan performed live by winds, brass, strings and harp in an evening in the park.


Join us to celebrate the life and legacy of this historic and monumental woman.



PROGRAM AND NOTES:


Symphony No. 1 in E minor (1932) (12')

I. Allegro ma non troppo

arranged for 10 players by Ashley Ertz


Florence Price was the first African-American woman to be performed by a major orchestra - our own Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933! Almost exactly 90 years ago to the day! The performance was part of the Chicago World's Fair festivities - an occasion that the CSO conductor Frederic Stock took full advantage of to showcase all of the brilliant local Chicago talent he could find. This momentous performance was of Florence Price’s 1st Symphony - truly a night of firsts! While this achievement is almost always the opening line of her biography, she was so much more than that. So for this program we are going Beyond the First! We are still highlighting this monumental history making 1st Symphony but will also be taking you on a journey throughout her life, showing new sides to her.


 

Sketches in Sepia (1947) (3')

To a white rose (1949) (3')

arranged for Harp


Next we will jump about 15 years into the future to the late 1940s, a few years before the end of Florence’s life. In 1941 Florence Price moved into the Abraham Lincoln Center building at 700 Oakwood Blvd - literally that building right there on the edge of Mandrake Park! It was a sort of settlement house full of apartments, offices, meeting rooms, lecture halls and single room dwellings. When vacancies were made at the Center they weren’t advertised and the building was not open to the public - you had to be known or know someone to get in there and Florence Price was definitely known locally. Also of note - this building was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and now has historic landmark status. That building was more than a place to live, it was a community of people who would use the building to further their careers, giving lectures or performances. It was also a destination for famous lecturers to visit - In 1908 Booker T. Washington visited to give a speech. Price held her own piano teaching studio out of the building as well - even hosting studio recitals in the lecture hall, many times highlighting her own music. It was while she was residing at this building that she wrote these next pieces Sketches in Sepia” and "To a white rose". While we don’t have proof that it was performed in the building it’s fun to imagine its creation there. These pieces were originally written for piano and but work really well on Harp as well.


 

Suite for Wind Quintet (7')

I. Rabbit Foot

II. Adoration

III. Ticklin' Toes

arranged by Ashley Ertz



Now we will go back in time to before Florence moved to Chicago. Florence Price was born and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas. She’d finish school and go onto study Organ at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston - one of the few schools at the time accepting African-Americans and/or women. She really thrived here and after graduating at the top of her class she moved back home to Little Rock to better her own community. While back in Little Rock she taught piano lessons extensively while also working at local churches as organist/music director. During both of these jobs she did not settle for just playing/teaching other people's music but composed much of her own music for the occasions. Thankfully much of this music has survived and can still be used for educational purposes. The first and last movement of the following suite were educational pieces while the middle work is the most beautiful lyrical organ melody - arranged for virtually every instrument now because of its beauty and relatability.


 

Five Folksongs in Counterpoint (1951) (5')

II. Oh My Darlin' Clementine

IV. Shortnin' Bread


Popping around now we are going back to the end of her life when Florence was again residing in the Abraham Lincoln Center. In the early 1950’s her reputation was continuing to grow steadily with her works being performed regularly through the US and Canada. She was also starting to receive international recognition, in the UK and Paris. Meanwhile in February of 1951 she completed the work you are about to hear - her Five Folksongs in Counterpoint. She utilized 3 African-American spirituals and 2 others to make up this wonderfully progressive work. Unlike the wind quintet pieces, these were not meant for beginners or even intermediate players. These are complex pieces using common melodies of their time while exploring advanced music theory ideas.


 

Deserted Garden for violin and piano (1933) (3')

performed on Oboe and Harp


Next we go right back to Florence Price’s busiest year - 1933 when her 1st symphony premiered and this entire neighborhood and city was a buzz because of the World’s Fair. We don’t know the inspiration behind this piece but we do know that Florence composed simple educational melodies for the violin in addition to her educational piano works. This is likely one of those works but one can also imagine it as so much more. It’s called “Deserted Garden” and I think you can hear the loneliness and peace in it.


 

Symphony No. 4 in D minor (1945) (5')

II. Andante Cantabile

arranged for 11 players by Ashley Ertz


Now we are jumping to 2009. Yup after she died! Price passed away in 1953 but thankfully her legacy did not. In 2009 real estate developers were looking through an old abandoned house down in St. Anne IL (about 70 miles south of Chicago) and discovered a bunch of papers all sharing the name of Florence Price. They googled the name and thankfully sent the papers onto the University of Arkansas library which houses most of her manuscripts today. In this collection of papers was found so many presumed lost works including her Fourth and last symphony written in 1945. Florence never got to hear this Symphony performed in her lifetime but thankfully today it’s not lost and we get to share it with you. We are playing the 2nd movement, which is a serene slow chorale of sorts. You can definitely hear the influence of the spirituals but with her own twist.


 

Symphony No. 1 in E minor (1932) (5')

IV. Finale. Presto

arranged for 11 players by Ashley Ertz


And now we’ve come full circle, back to where we started with the 1st. While this work might remain at the top of her biography we hope you’ve learned a little more about her and the legacy she left. From 1964 to 2012 there was the Florence B. Price Elementary School in her honor right over at 4351 S. Drexel Blvd. While the school closed in 2012 the building kept her name and is now the Florence B. Price 21st Century Community Academy in her honor. There is an International Florence Price Festival held annually at the University of Maryland as well as the Florence Price Music Festival held at the University of Arkansas. Also numerous other festivals including the Women in Music Festival have dedicated entire years to her honor and so much more. Ever since those lost manuscripts were discovered in 2009 her legacy has only re-blossomed for more and more people to discover. We hope you’ve enjoyed getting to know her a little bit today and that this will inspire you to go learn more about this trailblazing woman who opened so many doors for generations to come.



Additional Resources for further information about Florence Price:







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