Florence B. Price
In November 1943, the composer Florence Price wrote to Serge Koussevitzky, the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, asking him to consider performing her scores.
“Unfortunately the work of a woman composer is preconceived by many to be light, froth, lacking in depth, logic and virility,” she said. “Add to that the incident of race — I have Colored blood in my veins — and you will understand some of the difficulties that confront one in such a position.”
It was her second letter to Koussevitzky; there is no evidence he ever replied to her.
Price (1887-1953) was the first black woman to have her music played by a major American orchestra when the Chicago Symphony performed her Symphony in E Minor in 1933. She was a prominent member of the African-American intelligentsia, corresponding with W.E.B. Dubois and setting to music poems by Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar.
In 1893, the composer Antonin Dvorak proclaimed that an American art music should be built on African-American idioms. The musicologist Douglas Shadle has pointed out that, while white composers eagerly took up this directive — arguably culminating in George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” — many largely forgotten African-American composers did as well, and often took exception to what they saw as white appropriation.
Price was, Mr. Shadle said in an interview, “really the culmination of the African-American intellectual stream that followed in Dvorak’s footsteps.” She became well-known for her arrangements of spirituals; the great contralto Marian Anderson closed her historic 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial with Price’s arrangement of “My Soul’s Been Anchored in De Lord.”
But Price did not only quote folk songs. Describing her Symphony No. 3 in a 1943 letter to the conductor Frederick Schwass — her canvas began to broaden to the symphonic scale in the early 1930s — Price wrote that “it is intended to be Negroid in character and expression.”
“In it,” she went on, “no attempt, however, has been made to project Negro music solely in the purely traditional manner. None of the themes are adaptations or derivations of folk songs. The intention behind the writing of this work was a not too deliberate attempt to picture a cross-section of present-day Negro life and thought with its heritage of that which is past, paralleled or influenced by contacts of the present day.”
Marquese Carter, a doctoral student at Indiana University who specializes in Price’s work, said in an interview that she “uses the organizing material of spirituals. You may not hear direct quotation, but you will hear playing around with pentatonicism, playing around with call and response, some of these organizing principles that African-American scholars like Amiri Baraka have pointed out as indicative of black musical discourse.”