The exceptionalising of Florence Price

Don’t get me wrong, I adore Florence Price. All my close musical friends know how much I love Florence Price. It’s become kind of a running inside joke now.

Florence Price is my favourite classical composer, always and forever. Her music is everything to me, the first time I heard her Symphony No 1 was the first time I felt whole. Every time I listen to her music I fall in love all over again. Price’s music speaks to me on such a primal level and she is so special to me, she was the first black female composer I ever heard and one of the first female composers (at age 30 I’ll add). Florence Price is the reason I started The Daffodil Perspective, she’s the reason the show exists, the reason for the past 3 years fighting for gender and racial equality.

Everything about her is inspiring, from her life changing music to the racism, sexism and numerous hardships she endured.

I’ve already talked about her, I had a monthly segment on the show in 2019 all about Florence, wrote a blog post for Florence Price fest called the 10 reasons Florence Price inspires me and did a talk for Festival of the Spoken Nerd about Florence.

That all being said, it’s become gradually apparent to me over the past year or so how much Florence Price is exceptionalised.

Long story short Florence Price was born 1887, huge in the 30’s and 40’s music scene particularly the Harlem and Chicago Renaissance, died in 1953. After she died the white mainstream completely ignored her music and contributions whilst her music remained constantly in black musical circles. A few years ago a ton of her music was discovered in a delapidated old house in Illinois, USA, this fuelled a Florence Price revival. Since then her music is being performed and recorded a lot more by the white dominated mainstream along with numerous articles about her being the 1st black female composer, the 1st to write a symphony and to be performed by a major orchestra.

This week The BBC are once again featuring Florence Price as their composer of the week. The last time they did this was March last year.

Florence Price (while special to me personally) is not the only black female composer. She’s not even the only important one. Florence Price is one of many brilliant black female composers over the past 150 years (at least). I’ve been researching all these phenomenal black women for the show over the past two years and it’s so frustrating to see their work still marginalised.

Florence Price to me was a gateway drug, a pathway to all the other brilliant black women writing classical music. I’ve researched tons of them for the show and every week has been a new story, a new obsession, a new inspiration.

Nora Holt (1884/5-1974) incredible woman, she co-founded the National Association of Negro Musicians, the organisation supported (and still supports) many brilliant black woman including Price herself who was a member of the organisation. Nora Holt herself directly championed both Florence Price and Price’s fellow composer and friend Margaret Bonds.

There’s Estelle Ricketts (born 1871), who wrote the earliest known piano solo by a black woman in 1893 – Rippling Spring Waltz, only one recording of this piece exists and information about Ricketts is scarce.

Helen Hagan (1891-1964) was the 1st African-American woman to graduate from Yale School of Music, possibly the first black female student at Yale ever. She wrote a Concerto in C Minor as her graduation piece, never been commercially recorded.

Undine Smith Moore (1904-1989) was the 1st black female professor of music composition, an inspiring and influential educator as well as an extraordinary composer. She wrote more than one hundred pieces yet only a quarter of those were published in her lifetime. Her oratorio Scenes from the Life of a Martyr, based on the life of Martin Luther King was considered her most significant work but has never been recorded. No albums of her music exist, just a few short pieces including her Afro-American suite for flute, cello and piano.

Julia Perry (1924-1979) wrote 12 symphonies, 2 concertos and 3 operas. Only 3 pieces of hers have been recorded, her Short pieces for orchestra (7 minutes long), her 5 minute long Humunculus C.F. for percussion and her 30 minute long Stabat Mater.

Irene Britton Smith (1907-1999) whose parents couldn’t afford to send her to study music at university so she did teacher training instead. While teaching as an adult she studied music part time for a decade at the American Conservatory of Music, eventually earning her Bachelors degree in 1943! Only her spectacular violin sonata has been recorded.

Over here in the Great British contingent Avril Coleridge-Taylor (1903-1998) was a brilliant composer and conductor yet performances of her work are very few and she’s never been recorded. Same with Amanda Ira Aldridge (1866-1956)

Then there’s living legend Dorothy Rudd Moore (born 1940), founder of the Society of Black Composers, Zenobia Powell Perry who didn’t study music until well into her 40’s becoming the 2nd black female professor of music composition in the US. And many, many more badass women.

The Daffodil Perspective has featured over 20 black female composers so far (at least one is featured on every show).

There is a fantastic book newly published called Where Are All the Black Female Composers? Written by the brilliant Nate Holder. It’s aimed at children but there’s over 80 names in there, all worth checking out, a perfect start down the rabbit hole.

It makes me really angry that there are hardly any recordings of these amazing women, hardly any performances. And yet people insist on talking about Florence Price as though she’s the only one. She wasn’t. Florence Price is undoubtedly an important composer, one of the all-time greats but one of many inspiring, trailblazing black women over the past century and a half.

Then you have the reality that practically all these few recordings of black women are by solo artists or duos or small chamber groups. No orchestral, wind ensemble recordings or operatic recordings in sight.

Dorothy Rudd Moore wrote a symphony at age 20 which I’ve never heard and her opera Frederick Douglass has never been recorded in its entirety. Zenobia Powell Perry wrote for wind ensemble, orchestra and choir but the only recordings of her music are her solo piano, clarinet sonata and art songs. (Perry’s art song album was actually made by her daughter, the singer Janis Peri, who was a great champion for her mother’s music)

And don’t get me started on Shirley Graham du Bois, who wrote the 1st known opera by a black woman.

So much of the mainstream white dominated industry treats Florence Price as the token black woman. And not just the mainstream white industry but many organisations championing women treat Florence Price as a token black woman too.

Then it’s really difficult to judge all these other women because so little of their music exists to compare. Would Florence Price still be my favourite composer if I’d have heard everything by Undine Smith Moore or Nora Holt or Zenobia Powell Perry?

Someone said on a Facebook group yesterday how they were disappointed there wasn’t more of Florence Price available on CD. Florence Price is now the most recorded historical black female composer by far.

Commercial recordings of Florence Price include:

At least 3 portrait albums, 3 of her symphonies including 2 recordings of her Symphony in E minor, 2 violin concertos, an album of her art songs, at least 6 recordings of her piano sonata, 4 recordings of her piano suite Dances in the Canebrakes and numerous recordings of her Songs to the Dark Virgin and My Souls Been Anchored in de Lord. Plus Lara Downes released several EPs of Florence Price’s piano music last year.These are all in current circulation, easily purchased on Presto, iTunes or Amazon. In addition British pianist Samantha Ege (and Florence Price expert) is releasing an entire album of Florence Price’s piano music this year and the American Catalyst Quartet are planning to record an album of Price’s music.

In short there’s a really decent amount of her oeuvre available for consumption. True it still doesn’t compare to the umpteen recordings of Mozart and Beethoven that the classical music industry is choking us with but in comparison to the other black female composers Price is easily the most recorded.

So I implore us all, please start performing, publishing and recording all these other brilliant women too. I’ll still continue to adore Florence Price until my dying day but let’s stop exceptionalising her and start paying more attention to the numerous other badass black women composers and get them heard too!

For now, listen to some of the names listed above as well as several other awesome black woman check out this Spotify playlist below.

Plus check out the next show on Mixcloud coming 15th January!

Want to find out more about these women and the many more there are? Get In Touch to discuss my repertoire consultancy services.

Elizabeth de Brito,

Producer of The Daffodil Perspective

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