Fighting to be Heard: Florence Price & Ethel Smyth

Fighting to be Heard: Florence Price & Ethel Smyth

On September 26, the Houston Symphony presents the second Classical series livestream performance of the season, Great Women Composers: Esmail, Price & Smyth. In addition to contemporary Indian-American composer Reena Esmail, the evening features selections by two 20th-century trailblazers: Florence Price’s exuberant String Quartet in A minor and Ethel Smyth’s Songs for Mezzo-Soprano, which features Grammy Award-winning mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor.

Roughly contemporaries from both sides of the Atlantic, Price (1887–1953) and Smyth (1858–1944) fought for musical recognition in the face of prejudices, and each achieved firsts that still inspire.

Florence Price

American composer Florence Price, 1887–1953.

When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered Florence Price’s First Symphony in 1933, the Chicago Daily News declared it “worthy of a place in the regular symphonic repertoire.” This meteoric rise to excellence marked the first time an African American female composer had a symphonic work performed by a major national orchestra.

After this auspicious debut, Price enjoyed a number of professional successes throughout her career—such as Marian Anderson famously performing the composer’s arrangement of a spiritual on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939—but she also struggled against prejudices against her and her music, writing to a conductor in 1940 that “I have two handicaps—those of sex and race. . . . I should like to be judged on merit alone.”

Her compositions often blend the musical traditions of European classical music, jazz, spirituals, and African American church music that Price grew up with. In her String Quartet in A minor, keep an ear out for the third movement, titled Juba: Allegro, which draws inspiration from a vibrant, rhythmic dance that originated in West African cultures.

Ethel Smyth

British composer Ethel Smyth, 1858–1944.

Born to a family who did not wish her to pursue music, Ethel Smyth wrote the first opera by a female composer to be performed by New York City’s Metropolitan Opera. Like Price, Smyth found success with an early piece: her Mass in D received much acclaim in 1893.

Smyth took a two-year break from music to focus on the women’s suffrage movement. After being arrested in 1912, she famously led fellow prisoners in her suffrage anthem “The March of Women,” using a toothbrush as her conducting baton.

However, Smyth struggled to have her music consistently performed and published throughout her career, but only retired due to hearing loss much later in her life. She wrote, “I feel I must fight for [my music] because I want women to turn their minds to big and difficult jobs, not just to go on hugging the shore, afraid to put out to sea.”

Watch live! Join the Houston Symphony for the Live from Jones Hall livestream concert on Saturday, September 26, at 8 p.m. central. Tickets are $20.

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