In 1933, the composer Florence Price was the first African-American woman to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra. But her work faded from concert halls over the years. However, her music has been rediscovered after several of her compositions were found in her former summer home near Chicago. Now, according to the New York Times, the music publisher G. Schirmer announced that it had acquired the worldwide rights to her catalog.
“It’s my hope that Florence Price’s contribution to the canon of American music will finally be recognized and properly assessed,” Robert Thompson, the president of G. Schirmer, wrote in an email. “She has been neglected for too long.” Price, who was born in 1887 to a middle-class family in Little Rock, Ark., became a prominent member of the African-American intellectual community, corresponding with W.E.B. Dubois and setting poems by Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar to music. But she faced many obstacles getting her music played in a more sexist, segregated era, which she addressed in a 1943 letter that she wrote to Serge Koussevitzky, the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, asking him to consider performing her music.
“Unfortunately the work of a woman composer is preconceived by many to be light, froth, lacking in depth, logic and virility,” she wrote. “Add to that the incident of race — I have colored blood in my veins — and you will understand some of the difficulties that confront one in such a position.” In addition to symphonies and violin concertos, she also wrote arrangements of spirituals: The contralto Marian Anderson sang Price’s arrangement of “My Soul’s Been Anchored in De Lord” at her historic concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939.
Price died in 1953. Renewed interest in her work has led to performances this year by Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Arkansas Philharmonic Orchestra, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and the Fort Smith Symphony. Her Piano Concerto will be performed later this month by the pianist Aaron Diehl and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Price’s granddaughter, Vicki Hammond, said in a statement: “We are so proud that our grandmother has been rediscovered at a time when the high quality, value and beauty of her work is not negated due to her gender or color.”
Earlier this year, Schirmer announced that it had acquired the publishing rights to the work of the minimalist composer Julius Eastman, who died in obscurity in 1990, another African-American composer who had struggled for recognition during his lifetime. Asked what Schirmer was doing about signing living African-American composers — at a time when women and people of color still struggle to have their music performed —Thompson said that the company had been “proactive in publishing an amalgam of composers that represent the diverse society in which we live, and we’re constantly seeking out new voices in contemporary classical music that reflect this evolving diversity.”
He wrote:“ At the same time, it’s also important that we seize upon the opportunity to insure that past composers like Julius Eastman and Florence Price are not forgotten, and that their legacies are living ones, celebrated through live performances and new recordings.”