THE INFAMOUS PRICE-KOUSSEVITSKY LETTER
Updated: Oct 2, 2020
In a now infamous 1943 letter to Boston Symphony Orchestra's conductor, Serge Koussevitsky, Florence Price asked only that the maestro “judge her work on merit alone.” In 2020, we can recognize that “judging” someone based on their gender or skin color is wrong. However, let’s discuss the fact that it’s also… Incorrect? Unreasonable? Unfounded? Being Black is not inferior to being White, and being a Woman is not inferior to being a Man. These are not “handicaps” or hurdles to overcome, and it is senselessly tragic that society tried to make the brilliant Florence Price, and all of us, believe that they are.
Particularly shocking to learn is at this point in her career, Price was not some unknown, up-and-coming composer. She had already had her work performed by a major American orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, 10 years prior. It is unlikely that a major, prolific, prize-winning composer with this level of visibility would not have already been on the radar of a major conductor, and yet there is no known record of Koussevitsky ever replying to Price's letters or performing her work. The Boston Symphony orchestra did not program a piece by Price until 2019, long after her death.
The tragedy here is immeasurable:
1. Judging by this example of Koussevitsky ignoring Price’s letters and presence in the classical music world, and judging by the relative success and attention of her white male composer peers during this era, it is not unreasonable to infer that her reception and popularity would have been tenfold what it was during her lifetime had she been a white man.
2. When a composer becomes more well-known and widely-performed during their lifetime, this means they receive more commissions and funding; i.e. the ability to compose even more music. Price had a remarkable output despite not having widespread recognition; but what else could she have composed if she did? What heights would her compositional ability have reached with more experience and support?
3. Since Florence Price was not championed as she should have been during her lifetime, her work largely fell into obscurity until only recently. During this more than half-century of obscurity, how many women musicians and musicians of color might have been inspired to try their hand at composition had they been encouraged by inspired by having her as a role model? How many conductors would have been inspired to seek out and promote music by other women and people of color if they had been trained to know and love Price’s music?
Glass ceilings don’t exist because there hasn’t been anyone to break them. They exist because those that do break them get overlooked, silenced, ignored, and forgotten-- by their contemporaries and subsequently by history.
With our upcoming Concert for Black Lives, we are excited and honored to perform compositions by Florence Price and other Black composers with the admiration and love their music deserves. Because the road to diversification of classical music begins with music education, and we will be donating 50% of funds raised from this concert to BCME, which connects parents and students with Black classical music educators. The other 50% of proceeds will go to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
We hope you'll join us for our concert next Thursday, September 10th, live on YouTube at 7:30pm, and consider buying a “ticket” to support these important organizations. Tickets, in addition to raising funds for these two organizations, will also grant access to our exclusive post-concert discussion.
Event link: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/take-a-stand-a-concert-for-black-lives-tickets-116019157423?aff=ebdssbonlinesearch