‘Injury a help’
In 1932, Florence Beatrice Price broke her foot and composed the work that would define her career: a four-movement symphony with parts for two flutes, two piccolos, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, a tuba, a timpani, percussion and strings — a full orchestra, though at that time no major orchestra in the United States had performed a piece by a black woman.
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The work, “Symphony in E Minor,” was to become inseparable from Price’s reputation as a pioneer among black woman composers, a legacy for which she will be honored Thursday evening by the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame in a ceremony at the Statehouse Convention Center.
When Price began “Symphony in E Minor,” she was completely unknown outside her circle in Chicago. She had recently left her husband, who had turned abusive, and her home in Little Rock, where a brutal lynching had left her traumatized five years before. At the time of the broken foot, Price was living with her two daughters at the home of her 18-year-old student, Margaret Bonds. For one month, the two women sat at the kitchen table, Price composing, her pupil extracting parts for each instrument to copy onto separate pieces of paper.
Nine months later, when the winners of the Rodman Wanamaker Contest in Musical Composition for African-American composers were announced, newspapers described the results as if a once-in-a-century meteor had dropped to earth. Florence Price had won not only first place in the competition’s most prestigious category for her symphony, but also honorable mention in that category, first place in a different category, and honorable mention in that category as well. Even in the song category, which she’d not entered, she had, in a sense, won: Bonds, her student, had taken first place.
One headline read “$750 CASH PRIZES THE RESULT OF INJURY — 2 WOMEN GET ALL THE CASH GIVEN IN MUSIC CONTEST — INJURY A HELP,” brushing aside Price’s and Bonds’ victories as anomalies, events that were to be accepted as inexplicable and unlikely to occur again anytime soon.
When “Symphony in E Minor” was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at a World’s Fair Exposition with the motto “Century of Progress” the following summer, it was billed as “the first work in this form by a Negro woman composer,” proof of progress on par with the first rotor capable of harnessing wind energy and a prototype for gluten-free bread. The authors of the program were, apparently, oblivious to the irony of presenting a black woman composer as a symbol of progress at a fair where restaurants refused service to black customers and women were summarily ignored.
As a symbol of change, that World’s Fair performance of “Symphony in E Minor” was more aspirational than representative. Price’s debut did not, in fact, reflect a century of steady progress, nor was it a breakthrough that would dramatically change the world for woman composers. While it might initially have appeared as the first in a train of dominoes, with orchestras in New York and Europe waiting at the end, all of them ready to fall before the first black woman composer to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra, Price found herself on lesser stages. Though she continued composing for another 20 years, penning works that critics agree are far superior to that first, tentative composition, her later symphonies were performed by women’s groups and second-rate regional orchestras.
That broken foot in January 1932 gave Price a reprieve from her schedule, which generally consisted of teaching lessons, playing the organ at silent movies, writing for radio commercials and composing pieces for young students. During that month, she’d written “Symphony in E Minor,” another symphony and two more sonatas. Perhaps thinking of it as a joke, Price wrote a friend: “Oh, dear me, when shall I ever be so fortunate again as to break a foot.”
But the broken foot was a once-in-a-lifetime event, a stroke of fortune never to be repeated. Price died in 1953, and her body of work, over 300 compositions, was quickly forgotten. Piles of her manuscripts were left to rot at an abandoned summer home in Illinois until they were discovered by a couple who moved there in 2009. Since then, a modest wave of attention has come to her work in the form of articles in The New Yorker and The New York Times, a new recording of her violin concertos and, most recently, the announcement of her induction into the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame.
While admirable in its aim to undo the last century’s neglect, the rediscovery of Price is not entirely free from the contradictions of 1933. At a time when female composers represent less than 2 percent of the work performed by major American orchestras, classical music remains a frontier largely closed to women, and Price’s inclusion in a Hall of Fame that seeks to honor “significant and enduring contributions” carries with it a certain incongruence. Nearly 100 years after Florence Price’s debut at the World’s Fair, she is not so much the pioneer who opened the door as she is the fluke who slipped inside: a symbol ahead of a century’s progress.
Price, along with Dr. Carolyn F. Blakely, Karen Flake, Dr. Sue Griffin, Dr. Raye Jean Jordan Montague, Mary Steenburgen, Annabelle Imber Tuck and Bessie Grace Boehm Moore, will be inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame during a ceremony Thursday, Aug. 30, in the Wally Allen Ballroom at the Statehouse Convention Center. For tickets and details, see arwomenshalloffame.com.