A largely forgotten Black woman composer — the first to have her work performed by a major American orchestra almost 90 years ago — is being revived by the Philadelphia Orchestra this weekend.
Florence Price had one of her pieces performed in 1933, by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Since then, she has disappeared from the classical canon.
“She shouldn’t be an obscure composer. It’s sensational music that’s been overlooked,” said Orchestra CEO Matías Tarnopolsky. “It raises questions of how canons of music are made. Here we have this brilliantly creative compositional voice that has been largely unheard since her death in the middle of the 20th century.”
“In the musical world we have to ask: Why is this the case?” he added.
Price was born in 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas. She studied organ performance and composition at the New England Conservatory of Music, eventually settling in Chicago where she wrote symphonies, concertos, choral works, and pieces for solo voice and piano.
Price’s big break came when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra played her Symphony in E Minor after it won a Wanamaker Foundation Award. She spent the rest of her life trying to leverage that success, writing personal letters to conductors of major orchestras imploring them to consider her work.
Steve Spinelli, assistant director of choral programs at Cornell University, says Price was never able to get a foothold in the higher echelons of classical music during her lifetime.
“The World War II aesthetic of music: The idea that modernist music and experimentation of a particular variety was held in higher esteem than her neo-Romantic lush harmony,” he said. “And, of course, let’s be honest, there was her own proclaimed — she called them ‘handicaps’ — of sex and race. She was very vocal about how challenging her career was because of those two factors.”
Spinelli is the cofounder of OneComposer, a new initiative to bring deserving but unsung composers to the attention of scholars, orchestras, and audiences.
OneComposer’s other co-founder, Tamara Acosta, is on the vocal faculty of Cornell University and studied at the same conservatory that Price did, decades later. While in school, she never heard Price’s name.
“I had gotten my master’s degree where she went to school and I had never once encountered her in my upper-level music history classes,” said Acosta. “This is not right, because it’s really incredible music.”
Spinelli and Acosta had planned a three-day conference at Cornell where scholars and musicians would have gathered to focus on the life and music of Price, but it was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. When they saw that the Philadelphia Orchestra already had Price in its 2020-2021 season programming, they reached out to partner with the orchestra on a performance of Price’s original “Piano Concerto in One Movement,” a piece not played or heard in some 80 years.
“When the Philadelphia Orchestra plays something, a lot of people listen,” said Spinelli. “That’s really important to us.”