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Little Rock-born black composer Florence Price, though she has been dead for 65 years, has finally taken her place on the national classical music scene.

Much of this recent attention is due to the discovery in 2009 of a large cache of Price's music in an abandoned house in Illinois, including several compositions thought previously lost. I am proud to have played a role in rescuing the collection and making it available to researchers and musicians. Just last week the Fort Smith Symphony performed two of Price's major compositions, including the world premiere of her Fourth Symphony.

Florence Beatrice Smith was born in Little Rock on April 9, 1888, to Dr. James H. Smith, a dentist, and teacher Florence Gulliver. The Smith family was prominent in Little Rock. The interests of Florence's father were diverse. It is too bad that Dr. Smith and his wife have been more or less lost to history.

Dr. Smith left Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871, settling in Little Rock. For a time he was the only black dentist practicing in Little Rock. He was the author of Maudelle, the first novel by a black Arkansan, published in 1906. Dr. Smith enjoyed painting, and his large home was said to contain numerous murals by his hand. One of his paintings was exhibited at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. An energetic man, Dr. Smith also registered at least three patents.

Florence's mother was not only a teacher, but also a musician of ability who engaged in the real estate business.

Mrs. Smith realized early on that Florence was a musical prodigy. Florence made her first public appearance at 4 years of age, and produced compositions by age 11. Florence had the good fortune to have Charlotte Stephens as a teacher in the local black school. Stephens, who would a few years later teach another famed black composer, William Grant Still, gave Florence extra attention, and she blossomed. She graduated in 1903 as valedictorian from Capitol Hill School in Little Rock.

That fall, at the tender age of 16, Florence was accepted at the New England Conservatory. Her nationality was given as Mexican, probably to disguise her race. She graduated in 1906 with certification to teach music. Upon returning to Arkansas, the young teacher found work at Cotton Plant Academy, a black Presbyterian institution in Woodruff County, and later at Shorter College in North Little Rock. For two years Florence served as head of the music department at Clark University in Atlanta.

Returning to Little Rock in 1912, Florence married prominent black lawyer Thomas J. Price, a partner with highly regarded Scipio A. Jones. They set about to build a life, with Florence teaching music and composing. The couple had three children, their only son dying young.

We do not know how happy the marriage was while the Prices lived in Little Rock, but later, after moving to Chicago, they divorced. Florence charged that Thomas Price was physically abusive.

The Price family prospered, but being in the middle class offered little protection from the twin realities of racism and violence. The Arkansas State Music Teachers' Association denied her membership, which hurt Florence badly. While segregation might leave a sting, race violence was fearsome.

It was likely the 1927 lynching in Little Rock of John Carter, a mentally incompetent black man guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, that drove the Price family from Little Rock to Chicago. After having mutilated Carter's body, it was burned in a public spectacle within blocks of the Price home. A local National Guard company was called out to put an end to a very threatening situation.

Chicago proved good for Florence Price's career. She had already won an award for her compositions before leaving Little Rock. Public recognition grew dramatically. In 1932 she won two Wanamaker Foundation awards for her compositions, a piano sonata and Symphony in E Minor, which would become her most famous work.

The Wanamaker awards brought her to the attention of Frederick Stock, conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. On a warm June evening in 1933, Stock conducted a performance of Symphony in E Minor at Orchestra Hall. This performance was the first time in American history that a major orchestra performed the work of a black female composer. Later in the summer of 1933, Stock conducted another performance of the Price symphony at the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition.

Her lifetime of composing produced at least 300 compositions. Within a classical framework she employed a host of traditional black musical techniques, including call and response, Juba dance rhythms, and syncopation. Marian Anderson premiered Price's "Songs to the Dark Virgin." "My Soul's Been Anchored in de Lord" is considered Price's most famous spiritual. It was recorded by both Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price.

Price died in 1953 at the height of her career while preparing for a European tour. She quickly slipped from public consciousness, though an elementary school in Chicago was named in her honor in 1964.

In 2009, while employed as head of the Special Collections department at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, I received a message that a couple living in Saint Anne, Ill., had discovered a large quantity of papers associated with Florence Price. Along with Tim Nutt, assistant head of special collections, I visited Saint Anne and met with Vicki and Darrell Gatwood. The Gatwoods had purchased a number of houses associated with a long-closed black country club, and one of the abandoned houses turned out to be a cottage owned by Florence Price.

The Price home was in disorder, with the roof caved in where a tree limb had fallen. Fortunately, part of the roof remained intact, protecting file cabinets of papers and a grand piano as well as other furniture. Vandals had broken in just before Tim and I arrived on the scene; papers had been strewn across the floor and the piano stolen. The Gatwoods carefully rescued the papers, boxed them, and moved them to their home.

Acquiring the Price papers was a highlight of my professional career. Special Collections had assembled a Price manuscript collection back in the 1970s, but this new acquisition contained numerous new compositions as well as other papers.

Two of the previously lost pieces have been recorded by UA professor of music Er-Gene Kahng, Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2--which a writer in New Yorker magazine described as being played "with lustrous tone and glistening facility." Price's work has also found recent outlets in Europe, including the BBC. Perhaps the headline of a recently published article in the New York Times on the revival of interest in Florence Price says it best: "Welcoming a Black Female Composer into the Canon. Finally."

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com.

Editorial on 05/20/2018

Print Headline: Reviving a fine musical legacy

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