Composer Florence Price Was the First African-American Woman to Have a Work Performed by a Major U.S. Orchestra

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra presented Florence Price's Symphony in E minor in 1933, making her the first African American woman to have a work performed by a major U.S. Orchestra.

By Brian Wise | From the November-December 2021 issue of Strings magazine

The discovery in 2009 of a trove of manuscripts once belonging to the composer Florence Price is a gift that keeps on giving to string players. The 19-box cache, found in her abandoned former summer house near Chicago, has yielded numerous published editions of her music for strings, including two violin concertos, four string quartets, two piano quintets, and various showpieces for violin and piano. Forming part of a larger catalog that numbers as many as 250 works, the string repertoire highlights Price’s gift for sumptuous harmonies, soaring lyricism, and references to spirituals and Juba dances.

Early 2022 is expected to bring the release of a two-CD set by the Catalyst Quartet featuring Price’s quartets and quintets, and performances of her Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 by violinist Melissa White (with a future recording planned). G. Schirmer, which acquired the music publishing rights to her catalog in 2018, will issue the first edition of the Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint for string quartet late this year. And a new scholarly biography of Price from Oxford University Press is in the works, fueling interest in the pathbreaking African-American composer, who died in 1953 at the age of 66.

“It’s amazing for me to have so many conversations with strangers who have been so affected by her music,” says violinist Er-Gene Kahng, who in 2018 released an agenda-setting recording of Price’s violin concertos with the Janáček Philharmonic and conductor Ryan Cockerham. “I don’t know how many folks would respond like that to, say, recordings of Bach solo sonatas, unless it was something infamous at this point.”

Price’s story remains compelling. The Arkansas-born, New England Conservatory–trained composer became the first African-American woman to have a work performed by a major U.S. orchestra when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra presented her Symphony in E minor in 1933. Other champions of her music included the soprano Leontyne Price and the contralto Marian Anderson, both of whom sang her arrangements of spirituals at Carnegie Hall.

But despite close ties to the Black intelligentsia, including writer Langston Hughes, Price was frequently denied opportunities and had to make ends meet by playing the organ for silent film screenings and writing advertising jingles. Her instrumental works fell by the wayside after her death, only to gradually resurface since 2009.

Lush and Quicksilver Violin Concertos

“Florence Price was writing at a very unjust and unequal moment in history, and that makes me wonder about the access that she had to violinists,” says White, who is scheduled to perform the concertos in January 2022 with the National Philharmonic under the direction of Piotr Gajewski. “It blows my mind that Florence did all of this. I only wish I knew who her violinist friends were at the time and who she was able to be in touch with and get that feedback.”

Composer Florence Price as a young adult.
Florence Price as a young adult. Photo courtesy University of Arkansas-Kettering and Reynolds

There is no evidence of any performances of the Violin Concerto No. 1 after its completion in 1939, and it is unclear if Price ever had a Joseph Joachim–like figure to answer technical questions or give feedback as she was composing. The second concerto, an almost cinematic composition finished in 1952, was performed twice by its dedicatee, Chicago violinist Minnie Cedargreen Jemberg. Neither of the scores exists with notes or instructions from the composer.


“Once I got the part and started working through it, it actually took quite a bit of time to find a fingering that would lie comfortably on the instrument,” White says of Violin Concerto No. 1. “There were some passages that I changed ever so slightly, just to make it manageable at the tempos that she wanted. Overall, the work plays well and sounds the best when it sounds effortless. Her tempi are very exciting.”

Passagework aside, White is especially drawn to the concertos’ lush slow sections with their blue-note inflections. “She was able to use a wide range of influences,” White says. “I’m thinking of Black soulful music, Black spirituals, the Southern vibe. I like to think of a really hot summer day, sitting out on the porch and taking it easy and having a tune that goes so nicely with that type of atmosphere.”

Price’s background as a theater organist also carries a significance. “There’s this kind of wall of sound, this bigness, the sense of harmony first,” says Kahng, who is a professor of violin at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and concertmaster of the Arkansas Philharmonic Orchestra. “The concept of bigness seems like such a superficial point but, for me, it’s quite profound because the violin will always remain a single-line instrument, even with double-stops and suggestions of multiple voices.”

Kahng says that for violinists, theconcertos, require “a baseline facility in the left hand and nuance in the right hand” but more importantly, a sense of the larger canvas. Though both last under 25 minutes, there is a post-Romantic grandeur in their mix of styles and timbres. “Price really represents the whole world, a vast universe of sounds,” she says. “In an effort to represent a sonic universe, going for a vastness lends itself to a lot of technical difficulties.”

Price clearly studied 19th-century concertos, and violinists frequently identify hints of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in the opening of her first Violin Concerto. One emerging theory holds that this was a means of “signifying,” a type of quotation or sampling that can be found in various forms of Black cultural expression. E. Kori Hill, a musicologist and PhD candidate at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, has developed this interpretation. “With the Tchaikovsky quotation, I read that as her signifying on the work to folks who know the piece,” she explains. “It’s like, ‘Hey, I know the Tchaikovsky.’ But it’s also an exploration of the different creative directions that Tchaikovsky’s theme can take.”

Achieving Blend in the String Quartets

The technical hurdles in Price’s concertos can also be found in her two numbered string quartets—No. 1 in G major and No. 2 in A minor—as well as two suites of folksong arrangements for string quartet: the enchanting Five Folksongs in Counterpoint, and the Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint. Each is to be included on the Catalyst Quartet’s release on the Azica label, planned for February 2022.


“Her cello writing is great,” says Catalyst cellist Karlos Rodriguez. “It’s very playable. It’s in good registers. She really uses the cello well. And I think she does the same for all of the instruments of the string quartet.” Yet at the same time, Price’s penchant for hopscotching around different styles and textures presents difficulties, as in the two-movement Quartet No. 1. “It’s not a densely written piece, but the balancing of voices within the quartet—and bringing out continuity of phrasing—is still very hard,” Rodriguez says. “But there’s a reward in that challenge.”

Composer Florence Price
Florence Price. Photo courtesy University of Arkansas-R.D. Torres

The Pacifica Quartet recently added the First String Quartet to its concert programs. “It’s easy to hear right off the bat and it’s beautiful,” says cellist Brandon Vamos. “There are moments where we are surprised by the harmonic language. And we found that it’s a really great way to open a program. It brings the audience in right away and works really well for us.”

Vamos cautions that there are not many markings in the parts and the Pacifica prefers the manuscript version from the University of Arkansas libraries. “It’s almost like a Haydn quartet where we add a lot of our own ideas in terms of shaping the phrases and dynamics,” he notes. “There are some challenges in balancing. Once we understood what lines and secondary lines we want to bring out, it made it much easier to understand.”

Both Vamos and Rodriguez say they are hopeful that performance editions of Price’s work will become standardized. The Catalyst performs from an amalgam of published versions, including ClarNan Editions’ of the first quartet, Schirmer’s edition of the second quartet, and manuscript copies of both. “Her music is not necessarily complete or even well-researched yet,” says Rodriguez. “We’re putting all of those resources together to arrive at what we believe to be the truth of the matter.”

Schirmer spokespersonJulia Snowden says that the editing process is complicated because of the fragmentary nature of the source materials. With the forthcoming Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint, “there are multiple sources for the piece and of course my colleagues want to do their due diligence in examining them all to come up with an authoritative version.” Ensembles are best advised to approach the music with a spirit of inquiry and adventure.


The Riches of Price’s Solo Catalog

A particularly rich corner of Price’s instrumental output lies in the music for violin and piano. Schirmer has published several of these recital-friendly pieces, some of which are arrangements of spirituals. The rhapsodic Adoration, from 1951, is a solo organ piece that has been issued in modern versions for violin, viola, and cello with piano, the former of which violinist Randall Goosby recorded for his recent album, Roots.

Goosby also presents the first recordings of Price’s Fantasies Nos. 1 and 2, both five-minute showpieces imbued with homespun melodies and violinistic pyrotechnics. “It’s full of surprises,” says Goosby of Price’s quixotic style. “You have to allow the space and time for those sorts of textural and technical transitions to occur, and it has to feel spontaneous.”

Goosby’s recording, which also contains works by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson and William Grant Still, was conceived as the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum in the summer of 2020. Since then, concert halls have been increasingly saturated with Price’s music, says Kahng. “I have been part of panels where people have expressed concern that Price is just a shorthand, and is being exploited as a convenient conduit for diversity in programming, or diversity in classical music,” she observes. “That kind of reductiveness I’m sure is happening, whether it’s intended or not.”

But having been steeped in Price’s music for much of the past decade, Kahng is happy for the added boost the past 18 months have brought. “It’s about trying to come together and make space for [composers] who are not as privileged,” she says.

White is looking forward to teaching Price’s work to students at New York University, where she recently joined the faculty. “I’m very excited to see this come more into the mainstream repertoire, like on lists when you take an audition,” she says. “It really shows off one’s technical and musical ability, so I think it fits on the list for standard violin repertoire. As an instructor, I’d be super-excited to get to teach this.”