Music

Score

Rediscovering the art of a pioneering black woman composer

The BSO will perform Florence Price’s 1929 String Quartet.
UNIVERSITY OF ARKANSAS LIBRARIES SPECIAL COLLECTIONS
The BSO will perform Florence Price’s 1929 String Quartet.

On Feb. 10 and 12, members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra will perform free community concerts, and on the program is Florence Price’s 1929 String Quartet.

Price was born in 1887 in Arkansas; her father, James Smith, was a successful dentist and one of Little Rock’s most prominent African-American citizens. At the age of 14, Price came to Boston to study at the New England Conservatory. (The family was proud but realistic: Price’s mother, wary of racism, told NEC her daughter was Mexican.) After graduation, she returned south, marrying attorney Thomas Price and teaching at Atlanta’s Clark University. But after a lynching in the Prices’ neighborhood, the family joined the Great Migration, moving to Chicago in 1927.

The transition was rocky. Florence furthered her studies at Chicago colleges, but both Prices struggled to find work; by 1931, they had divorced. Price finally broke through thanks to a confluence of industry and injury. Her Symphony No. 1 — much of it written while convalescing from a broken foot — won the 1932 Wanamaker Prize, a national competition for African-American composers, named for department store magnate Rodman Wanamaker. (Price’s Piano Sonata took third prize in the same competition.) As part of the prize, Price’s Symphony was premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, to rave reviews.

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Price’s career was also buoyed by government support, in the form of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration. WPA-supported orchestras, especially the accomplished and unusually vital Chicago Women’s Symphony, premiered and performed her music. Her style subsumed deep African-American influences — modal hints of the blues, poised syncopations — into a polished romanticism, reminiscent of Dvorák but quietly, determinedly individual. She helped hone the template for art-song arrangements of spirituals; soprano Marian Anderson closed her famous 1939 recital at the Lincoln Memorial with Price’s version of “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord.”

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But Price’s reputation waned after her 1953 death. For all her premieres and performances, very little of her music was published or recorded (indeed, for years, Anderson’s recording of “My Soul’s Been Anchored” was Price’s sole place in the catalog). Only by chance did many of her scores survive, the manuscripts rescued, decades after her death, from the attic of her onetime house.

The collection, now at the University of Arkansas, has slowly but steadily yielded rediscovered works. (The String Quartet, part of that cache, was premiered in 2015.) Today, they are a reminder: of exceptional talent, of American opportunity and accomplishment — and how easy it is for the fruits of that labor to slip through the cracks.

Members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra perform music of Foote, Price, Ginastera, and Ravel, Feb. 10 at 1:30 p.m. at Northeastern University’s Fenway Center (free; reserve tickets at https://mytickets.northeastern.edu) and Feb. 12 at 3 p.m. at the Huntington Avenue YMCA (free; reserve tickets at 617-266-1200).

Matthew Guerrieri

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.