Revisiting The Pioneering Composer Florence Price A new recording spotlights the tenacious composer, who was the first African-American woman to have her work performed by a major symphony orchestra.
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Revisiting The Pioneering Composer Florence Price

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Revisiting The Pioneering Composer Florence Price

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Music Reviews

Revisiting The Pioneering Composer Florence Price

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The first African-American woman to have her music performed by a major orchestra was Florence Price. The year was 1933, and the piece was her first symphony.

(SOUNDBITE OF FORT SMITH SYMPHONY PERFORMANCE OF FLORENCE PRICE'S "SYMPHONY NO. 1")

CORNISH: The work, along with her fourth symphony, has been released in a new recording. NPR's Tom Huizenga has this review of the music and the pioneering composer behind it.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: Fans of Florence Price, especially in the African-American community, will argue that her music has never really been forgotten. But some of it has been lost. Not long ago, a couple bought a fixer-upper south of Chicago and discovered nearly 30 boxes of manuscripts and papers. Among the discoveries in what turned out to be Price's abandoned summer home was her fourth symphony composed in 1945.

(SOUNDBITE OF FORT SMITH SYMPHONY PERFORMANCE OF FLORENCE PRICE'S "SYMPHONY NO. 4")

HUIZENGA: This is the world premiere recording of the fourth symphony with conductor John Jeter leading the Fort Smith Symphony. It's another piece of the puzzle to understanding the life and music of Florence Price and a particular time in America's cultural history.

(SOUNDBITE OF FORT SMITH SYMPHONY PERFORMANCE OF FLORENCE PRICE'S "SYMPHONY NO. 4")

HUIZENGA: Price was born in 1887 in Little Rock, Ark. Her mother gave her music lessons since none of the leading white teachers in town would take her. In 1904, Price enrolled at the New England Conservatory in Boston, one of the few music schools that would accept black students at the time. After earning two diplomas, Price returned to Little Rock where she taught, got married and began raising a family. But racial tensions were on the rise, and a public lynching in 1927 triggered a move to Chicago. There, Price blossomed as a composer. Her first symphony won a prize, which led to its premiere by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The music is a blend of two traditions - African-American and European. The opening movement sounds like Dvorak.

(SOUNDBITE OF FORT SMITH SYMPHONY PERFORMANCE OF FLORENCE PRICE'S "SYMPHONY NO. 1")

HUIZENGA: Price might be searching for her own voice in her first symphony, but she adds distinctive touches. Cathedral chimes glisten in the serene slow movement, and African drums accompany the syncopated Juba dance, a folk tradition that originated in Angola and moved with slaves to American plantations.

(SOUNDBITE OF FORT SMITH SYMPHONY PERFORMANCE OF FLORENCE PRICE'S "SYMPHONY NO. 1")

HUIZENGA: Price and her music were well-received in Chicago and the great contralto Marian Anderson closed her legendary 1939 Lincoln Memorial concert with a piece arranged by Price. Still, she scraped to make ends meet, writing pop tunes and accompanying silent films. In 1943, she sent a letter to Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, acknowledging what she was up against. I have two handicaps, she wrote. I am a woman, and I have some Negro blood in my veins. But Price pushed on. Two years later, she wrote her final symphony, the newly resurrected fourth. In the opening movement, she quotes one of the most famous spirituals, "Wade In The Water."

(SOUNDBITE OF FORT SMITH SYMPHONY PERFORMANCE OF FLORENCE PRICE'S "SYMPHONY NO. 4")

HUIZENGA: Florence Price died in 1953 at age 66, and the amount of music she composed but was never heard helped dim her reputation over the years until now. Tucked away in those 30 recently discovered boxes are some 200 compositions which scholars are poring over. Clearly Florence Price's story is far from over. Tom Huizenga, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FORT SMITH SYMPHONY PERFORMANCE OF FLORENCE PRICE'S "SYMPHONY NO. 4")

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