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April 11, 2024

Giving Florence Price Her Flowers


Much of the composer’s work was forgotten or lost. Now she’s starting to receive the recognition she deserves.

Born in Arkansas in 1887, Florence Price was the first African-American woman composer to have her work performed by a major orchestra. Her Symphony No. 1 in e minor caught the attention of conductor Frederick Stock after it won first prize in the Rodman Wanamaker Competition. Stock premiered the work with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933 as part of the Chicago World’s Fair exhibition. Price’s harmonic writing and arresting orchestration prompted the Chicago Daily News to declare it “a faultless work, a work that speaks its own message with restraint and yet with passion,” and “worthy of a place in the regular symphonic repertory.”

Price composed over 300 works, including four symphonies, four concertos, and chamber, choral, piano, and organ pieces. Her music is often influenced by folk music, church hymns, and spirituals. As music historian A. Kori Hill describes, “Hers was a conscientious practice of close study and subtle innovation in a style that incorporated African American folk idioms in Western classical forms. Price’s aesthetic…made her a central figure in the classical arena of the Black Chicago Renaissance.” She was also well-known for her arrangements of Spirituals. Contralto Marian Anderson concluded her landmark 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial with Price’s arrangement of “My Soul’s Been Anchored in De Lord,” a work she also used to close her UMS recital debut in 1937 and her appearance with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1938.

“I have two handicaps — those of sex and race.”

Price often struggled to get her music performed because of discrimination. In a 1943 letter to Serge Koussevitzky, music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, she famously wrote, “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. I should like to be judged on merit alone.” He declined to program her music. While her work remained celebrated in music programs at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, it largely disappeared from the classical scene following her death in 1953.

However, a 2009 discovery sparked new interest in the composer. An estimated 200 manuscripts were found in her abandoned Chicago home. These works, previously thought to be lost, included her fourth symphony and two violin concertos. This revelation prompted major cultural institutions to reexamine the composer and her work.

The Philadelphia Orchestra and music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin have championed Florence Price in their repertoire, breathing new life into her compositions with a commitment to record her works. Their 2021 album of Price’s first and third symphonies received the Grammy Award for “Best Orchestral Performance.”

In response to the win, Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin declared:

“Though we can’t erase the prejudices of the past, we can work together to build a more equitable future for classical music — one in which all voices are heard, where everyone sees themselves on our stages, and where artists like Florence do not fade into obscurity. It is our hope that Florence Price becomes a staple in the classical music canon and that recordings of her works will be GRAMMY contenders — and winners — for many years to come.”

The Philadelphia Orchestra now brings Price’s majestic Fourth Symphony, which was never performed in her lifetime, to Hill Auditorium on Saturday, April 20, 2024. Tickets start at just $14, and $12-20 student tickets are available.

More Info & Tickets

Preview and stream Florence Price’s majestic Symphony No. 4 in The Philadelphia Orchestra’s latest recording on Apple Music or Spotify.