An Unlikely Discovery and New Recording Revive the Story of Composer Florence Price

Mar 22, 2018

Maybe we have Antiques Roadshow to thank. Because of the cultural phenomenon of that PBS television show, many of us view anything found in an attic, basement or forgotten closet as a potential treasure. And now in the Digital Age, it’s easier than ever to quickly research and back up a hunch about the value of found items.

New finds and rediscoveries can even amend history as we know it. Composer Florence Price has been, in large part due to race and gender, a footnote in American musical history when she should have been a chapter. But an unlikely unearthing of Price papers has revived her story and brought to light music that was thought to be lost.

Florence Beatrice Smith Price (1887-1953) was born and educated in the segregated South of Little Rock, Arkansas. In 1903, she enrolled in the New England Conservatory, one of the few prestigious music schools that would admit black students at the time.

After graduation, Price returned to Arkansas, married an attorney and started a family while teaching music. But increasingly violent race relations and an abusive husband led Price to leave the South. She turned first to Harlem and then to Chicago, both of which offered better and more musical opportunities for African-Americans.

Conductor Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony performed her Symphony in E minor in 1933, making Price the first African-American woman composer to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra.

Eleanor Roosevelt praised Price’s Third Symphony in her syndicated newspaper column, My Day, and Marian Anderson performed Price's arrangement of the spiritual “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord” in her groundbreaking recital on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Composer Florence Price
Credit University of Arkansas Libraries Special Collections / Wikimedia Commons

But Serge Koussevitzky froze out Price's numerous gentle requests to consider her scores for the Boston Symphony, and recognition as a "serious" symphonic composer was elusive. She relied on publishing popular songs and short piano pieces for a steadier stream of income, and played the organ in movie theaters to supplement when money was tight.

When Price died suddenly in 1953, her unpublished manuscripts went to her daughter, who was unconnected in the music world and unable to advocate effectively for her mother’s legacy. After her daughter’s death in 1975, it seemed likely that Price’s manuscripts were lost.

Fast forward to 2009, when Vicky and Darrell Gatwood begin renovating a dilapidated, vandalized house in St. Anne, Illinois. In one part of the house, which has miraculously remained dry, they discover a stash of papers, mostly manuscripts and letters. And one name keeps appearing: Florence Price.

A quick search online reveals that they have stumbled upon the papers of a moderately well known, but extremely important, African-American composer. The house they're renovating had been Price's summer home for a time.

The rest, as they say, is history.

During their research, the Gatwoods discovered that the University of Arkansas held some of Price's papers, so they contacted librarians there. It turns out they had rescued dozens of scores that were thought to have been lost.

Just last month, Albany Records released a new recording of two of those rediscovered works. Violinist Er-Gene Kahng and the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra offer elegant performances of Price's two violin concertos, along with conductor-composer Ryan Cockerham’s Before, It was Golden.

Classical 101 is airing the 1952 Violin Concerto No. 2 at noon Saturday, March 24. Here's a taste: