Florence Price and the Erasure of Black History

Florence Price is a name we are all hopefully familiar with. She was the first African-American woman to have her compositions performed by a major American symphony orchestra, and her life and work remain an important part of our history. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887, she was a musician from an early age and attended the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston when she was a teenager.1  In order to better her chances of attending the conservatory, some sources say she was dishonest about her racial background (she was the child of a biracial couple). In 1932, she won a prestigious composition competition and had the opportunity to have her Symphony No. 1 in E minor performed by the Chicago Symphony.2

Her career took another step forward when she was asked to perform her Concerto in One Movement with the same orchestra as the solo pianist. However, despite a promising start to her career, she struggled to gain recognition and opportunities because of her race and gender. She continued to release music under the male pen name of “Forrest Wood”.3
Throughout her career, she worked closely with pianist and composer Margaret Bonds, poet Langston Hughes, and contralto Marian Anderson.4

Her career was rife with racism and sexism – the fact that she was writing under a male Western name shows how she was forced to erase her own identity to survive. Her reviews, even supposedly positive ones, were all saturated with the same bias, like this one I found in the Chicago Defender:

“Florence Price’s contribution in the form of a piano concerto was by far the most important feature of the concert for here we see what the Negro has taken from his own idiom and good technique is beginning to develop on its own.” 5

Or this quote from Price herself:

“Unfortunately the work of a woman composer is preconceived by many to be light, froth, lacking in depth, logic, and virility. 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.”6



Price and her family were forced to leave Little Rock for Chicago in 1927 due to the increasing violence towards Black people in the South, directly following several lynchings in her area.7
While musical opportunities were greater for her in Chicago, she died with most of her 300+ works unpublished and inaccessible to the public until 2009, when boxes of sheet music were found in an abandoned house in St. Anne, Illinois.8 The house had been vandalized with the valuables stolen, but the sheet music was untouched and bore Price’s signature. Price’s music had been left in the house, which was discovered to have been her summer home, since her death in 1953. So why did it take this long for her works to be discovered, and how many other compositions and groundbreaking musical works lie untouched and undiscovered, just like Price’s? how many other Black composers remain uncredited for works we know and love? The erasure of Black history is a massive problem in America, and it is especially prevalent when looking at our musical history. Price is just one example of this.

1 Walker, Karla. “Racism and Sexism Stalled Her Career. Now Florence Price Is Finally Being Heard.” Colorado Public Radio, Colorado Public Radio, 1 July 2019, www.cpr.org/2018/04/16/racism-and-sexism-stalled-her-career-now-florence-price-is-finally-being-heard/
4 “Florence Price: Breaking Barriers of Race and Gender in Classical Music.” Pacific Chorale, www.pacificchorale.org/florence-price-breaking-barriers-of-race-and-gender-in-classical-music. Accessed 11 Nov. 2023

5 STARS WITH WOMEN’S SYMPHONY. (1934, Oct 20). The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967) Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/stars-with-womens-symphony/docview/492521061/se-2

6 Busch, Elizabeth. “Florence Price: Composer, Teacher, and Pianist.” Csmleesburg, csmleesburg, 10 Feb. 2022, www.thecatoctinschoolofmusic.com/post/florence-price-composer-teacher-and-pianist.

7 “Florence Price: Breaking Barriers of Race and Gender in Classical Music.” Pacific Chorale, www.pacificchorale.org/florence-price-breaking-barriers-of-race-and-gender-in-classical-music. Accessed 11 Nov. 2023

Amy Beach – Making Symphonic History


Amy Beach (1867-1944)

Amy Marcy Cheney, more famously known as Amy Beach, was an American composer and concert pianist from New Hampshire. Although she is not a household name among your average non-musician, she used to be a famous and widely-known name and is considered the first American woman to compose and publish a symphony.1 She was an incredibly gifted musician from toddlerhood and was even said to have started composing her own melodies at age 4.2 Despite disapproval from her mother, who was fearful that the stigma associated with musical performers would tarnish her daughter’s upper-class reputation,3 Beach became a successful touring pianist. Her mother’s hesitancy was not unfounded, since she likely knew the hardships that Beach would face as a woman entering the compositional and performance world. Women composers weren’t listened to or respected and women performers weren’t taken seriously. People of Beach’s time in America were fearful of the female composer. As composer Antonín Dvořák stated, “ladies have not the creative power”4 to composer good music. The commonly held view was that women should just stick to performing pretty songs if they were musically gifted. The “scientific”5 art of composition should be left to the men, who, unlike women, won’t allow their emotions to get in the way of this very mathematical and precise art form. If you can’t tell, I’m rolling my eyes very hard right now.

Beach married Henry H.A. Beach when she was 18 and continued to pursue her musical education. Her husband, although supportive of her compositional pursuits, patronizingly feared that formal lessons would “change her creative voice”,6 so she threw herself into rigorous self-study of music theory and composition. She went on to compose over 150 published works, including cantatas, concertos, church music, symphonies, chamber music, choral music, and numerous art songs set to Shakespearean texts.7

In 1894, Beach published her first symphony, titled Gaelic Symphony, which drew on Irish folk melodies and was inspired by some of Dvořák’s compositional styles. The symphony premiered in 1896 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Emil Paur BOOK. and was met with widespread acclaim and backhandedly positive reviews. As a New York Times critic stated, “This symphony shows that composition is not beyond the grasp of the feminine mind.”8 Another critic from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that “there is not a little strong writing, manful, one might call it, in which instruments are handled with confidence and authority.”9 These reviews can’t seem to separate the sex of the composer from how they listen to it. In Austin Latchett’s review in the Kansas City Journal, he just tells on himself about how unable he is to listen to a woman’s work without judging it differently than he would a man’s:

 “There may be no logical reason why women should not write as good music as men; but it is a fact that they have not written so brilliantly, so profoundly nor so prolifically as men have. They are almost unknown in the symphonic world. Presented anonymously, there would probably be no one to suspect that yesterday’s symphony was the work of a woman; but knowing it to be such, it is but natural that some of its most distinctive beauties should be directly associated with its feminine origin.”10

These reviews are obviously steeped in misogyny but they bring up an interesting point – what is it that makes music “feminine” and “masculine”? In my opinion, it’s a societal and cultural-based answer, but that’s for another blog post. Although her works aren’t as commonly performed these days, Beach stands as an inspirational figure for women in music everywhere. It’s important to acknowledge that if she were not white and upper-class, she would never have gotten as far as she did in the compositional world. Still, seeing a female symphonic composer clearly made a lot of male musicians uncomfortable, and that’s something that makes me smile to read about. 




1 Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Amy Marcy Beach”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1 Sep. 2023, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Amy-Marcy-Beach. Accessed 5 November 2023.

2 Ibid.

3 Robin, William. “Amy Beach, a Pioneering American Composer, Turns 150.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 1 Sept. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/09/01/arts/music/amy-beach-women-american-composer.html. 

4 Ibid.


6 Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Amy Marcy Beach”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1 Sep. 2023, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Amy-Marcy-Beach. Accessed 5 November 2023.

8 Jenkins, Walter S. The Remarkable Mrs. Beach, American Composer: A Biographical Account Based on Her Diaries, Letters, Newspaper Clippings, and Personal Reminiscences. Harmonie Park Press, 1997.