REX NELSON: The Price is right

Posted: March 7, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

There appears to be a renewed interest in Florence Beatrice Smith Price, a Little Rock native who became the first black female composer to have a symphonic composition performed by a major American orchestra.

In its Feb. 5 issue, the New Yorker published a story about how Price's works were saved from destruction. Alex Ross, who has been the magazine's music critic since 1996, wrote: "In 2009, Vicki and Darrell Gatwood of St. Anne, Ill., were preparing to renovate an abandoned house on the outskirts of town. The structure was in poor condition: Vandals had ransacked it, and a fallen tree had torn a hole in the roof. In a part of the house that had remained dry, the Gatwoods made a curious discovery: piles of musical manuscripts, books, personal papers and other documents. The name that keep appearing in the materials was that of Florence Price. The Gatwoods looked her up on the Internet and found that she was a moderately well-known composer, based in Chicago, who had died in 1953. The dilapidated house had once been her summer home.

"The couple got in touch with librarians at the University of Arkansas, which already had some of Price's papers. Archivists realized, with excitement, that the collection contained dozens of Price scores that had been thought lost. Two of these pieces, the Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2, have recently been recorded by the Albany label: The soloist is Er-Gene Kahng, who is based at the University of Arkansas."

Price was born April 9, 1887. Her father was a dentist. Her mother taught school and gave piano lessons.

"As a child, she received musical instruction from her mother, and she published musical pieces while in high school," Dan Dykema of Southern Arkansas University writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. "She attended Capitol Hill School in Little Rock, graduating as valedictorian in 1903. She then studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, which was a notable achievement for a black woman at that time. In 1907, she received degrees as an organist and as a piano teacher. After graduation, she returned to Arkansas to teach music ... in Cotton Plant. She left Cotton Plant after one year to teach at Shorter College in North Little Rock, where she remained until 1910. During that year, she moved to Atlanta, where she was head of the music department at Clark University until 1912."

She came back to Little Rock in 1912 and married a lawyer named Thomas Jewell Price, who worked with prominent attorney Scipio Jones. Florence Price established a music studio but was denied membership in the Arkansas State Music Teachers Association because she was black. With racial tensions worsening, Price moved to Chicago in 1927. Her work Symphony in E Minor was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933. Orchestras in Brooklyn, Pittsburgh and Detroit later performed works by Price. In 1935, the Philander Smith College Alumni Association brought her back to Arkansas. A concert of Price's compositions was held at Dunbar High School in Little Rock.

Among those working to ensure that Price isn't forgotten here in Arkansas is Linda Holzer, a professor of music at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

"When I wrote my dissertation on Florence Price's piano music in the mid-1990s, I was focused on her music," Holzer says. "Over time, I've come to understand her better as a person and learned more about historical context. Growing up in Chicago, I'm familiar with old neighborhoods, pedestrian scale and people walking everywhere. When I visited Pyramid Art, Books & Custom Framing in Little Rock for the first time, I saw Dunbar. I thought about the likelihood that she had walked a lot in that neighborhood. I had first learned about Florence Price when I was in my 20s and living in North Carolina. I heard a cassette recording that Althea Waites made. The music really caught my ear. Rae Linda Brown's work as Price's biographer, starting with her Yale dissertation research on Price's orchestral music, undertaken in the 1970s, was crucial. Unfortunately, Dr. Brown passed away unexpectedly last summer before the publication of her biography."

In an interview with Black Perspectives shortly before her death, Brown was asked about the racism that Price had to endure.

She said: "Price's daughters were threatened by mobs of white people. Price and her daughters quite literally fled to Chicago, and her husband followed less than a year later. In Chicago, there's no evidence that she was discriminated against as a black person or a female. In fact, she had certain advantages being that she was very well educated and light-skinned. She knew a lot of people and was in a circle of African Americans that really embraced her and took care of her and her daughters. She was very much accepted by white women's circles. ... There's a lot of evidence of her giving talks about the topics of the day and music to many of those women."

In his New Yorker story, Ross writes about a 1943 letter Price sent to conductor Serge Koussevitzky. She 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."

"The reasons for the shocking neglect of Price's legacy are not hard to find," Ross says. "She had a difficult time making headway in a culture that defined composers as white, male and dead. ... Only in the past couple of decades have Price's major works begun to receive recordings and performances, and these are still infrequent."


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at

Editorial on 03/07/2018