We’re highlighting the life and music of pioneering women in classical music every weekday during March for Women's History Month.
Born in 1887, American composer Florence Price first performed on piano publicly at age four, had her first music published at age 11, and after graduating high school first in her class, studied at the New England Conservatory and graduated with honors in 1906. Her first symphony and a piano sonata won first prizes in their categories in a 1932 competition. And in a 1943 letter to Serge Koussevitsky of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, wrote,
“My Dear Dr. Koussevitzky,
To begin with I have two handicaps— those of sex and race. I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins. Knowing the worst, then, would you be good enough to hold in check the possible inclination to regard a woman’s composition as long on emotionalism but short on virility and thought content until you shall have examined some of my work? As to the handicap of race, may I relieve you by saying that I neither expect nor ask any concession on that score. I should like to be judged on merit alone.”
That first symphony that won a first prize was also the first symphony by an African American woman to be performed by a major orchestra when it was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra the following year.
Price trail blazed many firsts, but she was not the first woman or the first African American to be ignored. Koussevitzky never wrote her back. Though she faced obstacles, she also enjoyed success. But ten years after her letter she died at age 66. Following her death, her legacy faded from the mainstream. But now nearly 70 years after her death, the mainstream is rising to meet her as composers of color and women are finally getting more recognition for their music on “merit alone” as Price urged of Koussevitzky. And with a trove of Price’s compositions rediscovered in 2009 and now being reviewed, edited, published and performed, the world is giving her the consideration that Koussevitzky didn’t.
For more about Florence Price, here’s a detailed article by Price scholar Samantha Ege: