Black History Month – Florence Price and Robinson Center

Florence-PriceOutside the William Grant Still Ballroom at Robinson Center is an atrium named for Florence Price.  It is fitting that these two childhood friends should be memorialized in adjoining spaces.

Florence Price was the first African-American female composer to have a symphonic composition performed by a major American symphony orchestra. She was born in Little Rock on April 9, 1887, to James H. Smith and Florence Gulliver Smith. Her father was a dentist in Little Rock, while her mother taught piano and worked as a schoolteacher and a businesswoman.

As a child, Smith received musical instruction from her mother, and she published musical pieces while in high school. She attended Capitol Hill School in Little Rock, graduating as valedictorian in 1903. Smith then studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, In 1907, she received degrees as an organist and as a piano teacher.

After graduation, Smith returned to Arkansas to teach music. After stints in Cotton Plant, North Little Rock and Atlanta, GA, Smith returned to Little Rock in 1912 to marry attorney Thomas Jewell Price on September 25, 1912. Her husband worked with Scipio Jones.

While in Little Rock, Price established a music studio, taught piano lessons, and wrote short pieces for piano. Despite her credentials, she was denied membership into the Arkansas State Music Teachers Association because of her race.

The Prices moved to Chicago, Illinois, in 1927. There, Price seemed to have more professional opportunity for growth despite the breakdown and eventual dissolution of her marriage. She pursued further musical studies at the American Conservatory of Music and Chicago Musical College and established herself in the Chicago area as a teacher, pianist, and organist. In 1928, G. Schirmer, a major publishing firm, accepted for publication Price’s “At the Cotton Gin.” In 1932, Price won multiple awards in competitions sponsored by the Rodman Wanamaker Foundation for her Piano Sonata in E Minor, a large-scale work in four movements, and her more important work, Symphony in E Minor.

The latter work premiered with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on June 15, 1933, and the orchestras of Detroit, Michigan; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Brooklyn, New York, performed subsequent symphonic works by Price. This was the first time a black woman had presented her work on such a stage. In this regard,

Price’s art songs and spiritual arrangements were frequently performed by well-known artists of the day. For example, contralto Marian Anderson featured Price’s spiritual arrangement “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord” in her famous performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939. European orchestras later played Price’s works.

This national and international recognition made her more popular back home, and in 1935, the Alumni Association of Philander Smith College in Little Rock sponsored Price’s return to Arkansas, billing her as “noted musician of Chicago” and presenting her in a concert of her own compositions at Dunbar High School.

In her lifetime, Price composed more than 300 works, ranging from small teaching pieces for piano to large-scale compositions such as symphonies and concertos, as well as instrumental chamber music, vocal compositions, and music for radio. Price died in Chicago on June 3, 1953, while planning a trip to Europe.

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RobinsoNovember: Florence Price

Florence-PriceOutside the William Grant Still Ballroom at Robinson Center is an atrium named for Florence Price.  It is fitting that these two childhood friends should be memorialized in adjoining spaces.

Florence Price was the first African-American female composer to have a symphonic composition performed by a major American symphony orchestra. She was born in Little Rock on April 9, 1887, to James H. Smith and Florence Gulliver Smith. Her father was a dentist in Little Rock, while her mother taught piano and worked as a schoolteacher and a businesswoman.

As a child, Smith received musical instruction from her mother, and she published musical pieces while in high school. She attended Capitol Hill School in Little Rock, graduating as valedictorian in 1903. Smith then studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, In 1907, she received degrees as an organist and as a piano teacher.

After graduation, Smith returned to Arkansas to teach music. After stints in Cotton Plant, North Little Rock and Atlanta, GA, Smith returned to Little Rock in 1912 to marry attorney Thomas Jewell Price on September 25, 1912. Her husband worked with Scipio Jones.

While in Little Rock, Price established a music studio, taught piano lessons, and wrote short pieces for piano. Despite her credentials, she was denied membership into the Arkansas State Music Teachers Association because of her race.

The Prices moved to Chicago, Illinois, in 1927. There, Price seemed to have more professional opportunity for growth despite the breakdown and eventual dissolution of her marriage. She pursued further musical studies at the American Conservatory of Music and Chicago Musical College and established herself in the Chicago area as a teacher, pianist, and organist. In 1928, G. Schirmer, a major publishing firm, accepted for publication Price’s “At the Cotton Gin.” In 1932, Price won multiple awards in competitions sponsored by the Rodman Wanamaker Foundation for her Piano Sonata in E Minor, a large-scale work in four movements, and her more important work, Symphony in E Minor.

The latter work premiered with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on June 15, 1933, and the orchestras of Detroit, Michigan; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Brooklyn, New York, performed subsequent symphonic works by Price. This was the first time a black woman had presented her work on such a stage. In this regard,

Price’s art songs and spiritual arrangements were frequently performed by well-known artists of the day. For example, contralto Marian Anderson featured Price’s spiritual arrangement “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord” in her famous performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939. European orchestras later played Price’s works.

This national and international recognition made her more popular back home, and in 1935, the Alumni Association of Philander Smith College in Little Rock sponsored Price’s return to Arkansas, billing her as “noted musician of Chicago” and presenting her in a concert of her own compositions at Dunbar High School.

In her lifetime, Price composed more than 300 works, ranging from small teaching pieces for piano to large-scale compositions such as symphonies and concertos, as well as instrumental chamber music, vocal compositions, and music for radio. Price died in Chicago on June 3, 1953, while planning a trip to Europe.

Tonight at 7, Arkansas Sounds salutes composers Florence Price and William Grant Still at Ron Robinson Theater

AR Sounds price_stillTwo of the leading American classical music composers in the first half of the 20th Century were from Arkansas and were African American.  Tonight (February 26) Arkansas Sounds pays tribute to Florence B. Price and William Grant Still in a program at 7pm at the Ron Robinson Theater.

Arkansas Sounds pays tribute to two of Arkansas’s most highly acclaimed African American classical composers with a screening of The Caged Bird: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price followed by performances of Price’s and Still’s compositions by members of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra (ASO) and the ASO Youth Orchestra. The film’s length is approximately 1 hour.

Little Rock native Florence Price (1887-1953) was the first African American female classical composer to have her composition played by a major American symphony orchestra. The Caged Bird: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price traces Price’s life, detailing her cultured childhood in an extraordinarily gifted family, her struggles and eventual departure from the South due to racial tension, and her great artistic impact and success. Her compositions were favored by famed soprano Marian Anderson, and in 1933, her “Symphony in E Minor” was performed at the Chicago World’s Fair by the Chicago Symphony.

Born in Woodville, Mississippi, and raised in Little Rock, William Grant Still (1895-1978) achieved national and international acclaim as a composer of symphonic and popular music and, as an African American, was hailed for breaking race barriers of his time. His Afro-American Symphony was the first symphony composed by an African American to be played by a major symphony orchestra and is still performed today. Still was a prolific composer whose work includes symphonies, ballets, operas, chamber music, and works for solo instruments, totaling nearly 200. He also received numerous honors and achievements such as the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1934, 1935, and 1938. He also received eight honorary degrees from institutions such as Oberlin College, the University of Arkansas, Pepperdine University, and the Peabody Conservatory of Music.

The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra (ASO) comprises the state’s most sought-after professional musicians and is celebrating its 50th season. The ASO Youth Orchestra comprises over 200 student musicians, ages 9-18, who travel from over thirty-seven communities throughout Arkansas.