Consider the odds stacked against Florence Beatrice Price. Born in 1887, in Arkansas, as one of three mixed race children, her childhood was marked by racial tension, with local lynching being commonplace. Yet she went on to graduate high school as valedictorian at fourteen, and win a place at the New England Conservatory, an esteemed music college. She dodged the worst of the racism fellow African-American students faced by telling her classmates that she was Mexican. Despite the heavily European-based training, Price found ways of incorporating her deep Southern roots into her compositions.
Being deeply religious, music of the African-American church was a strong influence alongside the emerging blues rhythms. She also wrote in a vernacular style, to incorporate elements of African-American spirituals by emphasising the rhythm and syncopation involved. In the 1930s, balancing her career, and being a single mother of two daughters, she composed her award-winning, forty minute, Symphony in E Minor during her recovery time after breaking her foot, and became the first African-American woman to be recognised as a symphonic composer, and the first to have her music considered good enough to be performed by a major orchestra. But despite this, after her death from a stroke in 1953, much of her work was greatly forgotten in favour of the new, emerging musical styles which fitted the changing tastes of a modern society.
Price’s music not only missed out on inclusion in the canon, but was perilously close to being lost, until 2009, when a significant amount of her compositions and papers were found in a dilapidated, abandoned house on the outskirts of a town in Illinois. Her music is rich in tonality and is guaranteed to caress the listener with passion. In her lifetime, Florence composed over a staggering 300 pieces, ranging from piano solos and accompanied vocal solos to orchestrals and spirituals. I particularly recommend a couple of perhaps her lesser known pieces, both for piano: ‘Dance of the Cotton Blossoms’ (1938) which brilliantly combines syncopated rhythms with a gentle lyricism, and ‘Fantasie Negré’ (1929), simply because it is a piece of such beauty, and yet such phenomenal difficulty, that I feel it is indicative of a woman who really had something to prove.