Ethiopia's Shadow in America

Florence Price

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes

Date of Composition: 1932
Duration: 14 minutes

Florence Beatrice Smith Price (1887–1953) is an American treasure whose music was almost forgotten due to her race and gender. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Price’s family supported her musical and educational talents as best they could within Jim Crow segregation laws of the late nineteenth century. In 1902, she began organ performance and piano pedagogy studies at the New England Conservatory. She returned to the deep south after graduation to teach music at Atlanta University, the first Historically Black University established in the southern United States. Marriage brought about a Little Rock homecoming, but the horrendous 1927 lynching of John Carter and ensuing violence in the city compelled the family to move northward. In Chicago, Price quickly found a network of like-minded musicians. After divorcing her husband, Price supported herself and her children by playing the organ for silent films and writing advertising jingles, but also found time to compose. In 1932, Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E minor won first prize in Chicago’s Wannamaker Composition Competition and subsequently became the first symphony composed by a Black woman to be performed by a major U.S. orchestra. In ensuing years, she continued to produce compelling compositions, but faced discrimination, which impeded national recognition of her work. After her 1953 death, her music almost vanished completely from public perception.

Ethiopia’s Shadow in America took honorable mention in that same 1932 competition. While many of Price’s compositions draw upon traditional African American themes to evoke images related to the Black experience, Price provided an especially clear program for listeners in this continuous three movement orchestral work. Movement subtitles in the original manuscript outline the life journey of so many Africans who were transported to the United States and enslaved against their will. “The Arrival of the Negro in America when first brought here as a slave,” “His Resignation and Faith,” and “His Adaptation, a fusion of his native and acquired impulses” each contribute to the narrative of the almost cinematic score. No record of public performance of the work during Price’s lifetime is known. The piece might never have been preserved at all had it not been found in a large store of Price manuscripts discovered during a 2009 house renovation outside of Chicago. In recent years, Price’s compositions have been newly embraced. Since 2020, her first symphony has received more than 250 performances across the United States and around the world. Ethiopia’s Shadow in America, a much lesser-known work only just premiered in 2015, was programmed by no fewer than thirty-one university, community, and professional orchestras in 2023 alone.

© Dr. K. Dawn Grapes, 2023