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Review: “The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price” by Rae Linda Brown

by A. Kori Hill
“The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price is a much needed addition to scholarship on Black composers, American music history, Black women’s creative lives, and Florence Price herself.”

The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price by Rae Linda Brown (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2020) ISBN: 9780252085109

In 2017, as I read Lawrence Schenbeck’s “Music, Gender, and ‘Uplift’ in The Chicago Defender,” I saw a citation for a forthcoming book on composer Florence Price by musicologist Rae Linda Brown.[1] Brown’s scholarship is an important corpus of secondary material on Price’s music and career.[2] And so while I was in the early stages of finalizing my dissertation topic within Price’s oeuvre, the citation filled me with excitement and nervousness. There was a book-length biography! Why hadn’t I heard of it before?!

Schenbeck’s article was published in 1997. Brown’s The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price was published in the summer of 2020: three years after her untimely passing from cancer, and 15 years after the monograph came under contract with the University of Illinois Press.[3] It emerged in the midst of a mainstream Florence Price Renaissance. G. Schirmer, who published Price’s art song “Songs to the Dark Virgin” in the 1940s, acquired her catalogue.[4] The International Florence Price Festival is in its second season.[5] Major orchestras like the Boston Symphony, Chicago Symphony and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra began to program her orchestral works. And her two violin concertos were recorded for the first time by Er-Gene Kahng and the Janacek Philharmonic.[6]

That The Heart of a Woman’s release coincided with these events may erroneously suggest that the latter helped the former. As Guthrie Ramsey–who completed the final edits–wrote in the book’s forward: “Price’s music is in vogue again and enjoying a new level of visibility because of Rae Linda’s foundational and decades–long dedication. And now a new generation of scholars, musicians, and institutions are unearthing lost scores, adding new insights and the programming and recording of her compositions.”[7] Rae Linda Brown was not the only scholar to study Price. But she was a one-woman vanguard in terms of contextualizing the composer’s place within American classical and Black music history. We are deeply indebted to her detailed and passionate work.

In the final section of the “Introduction,” Brown makes clear the broader implications of her Price biography. Through discussion of Du Bois’ double consciousness and the veil, Brown situates Price’s aspirations, successes, and struggles as an example of the multiplicity of Black lives and personhood:

“..on a deeper level, Price’s life and work challenge Du Bois’s [sic] famous text and, in fact, explode it, revealing their limitation in capturing the essence, complexities, and processes that are of African American culture. My study shows that there are many competing voices behind the veil. Price’s life offers but one example of their multiple selves and multiple consciousness–not just double. Hers is the life story of an African American woman who worked not to achieve Du Bois’ ‘self-conscious manhood’ but who sought to quietly articulate the undeniable role that black women have played in private and public African American life and culture.”[8]

Though The Heart of a Woman reads like a conventional biography, Brown’s interdisciplinary approach to Price’s personal and professional experiences emphasize her experience was part of a large and active community of Black musicians, artists, and entrepreneurs. Many of the individuals mentioned through this biography require their own critical studies to expand our understanding of the stylistic variety of Black creative expression in the first half of the 20th century.

Part I: “Southern Roots,” introduces us to the cultural and economic context in which Price was born and raised. Chapter 1, “Family Ties,” introduces readers to her parents, Florence Irene Gulliver and James Smith, born free in pre-Emancipation America. The Smith’s settling in Little Rock, Arkansas, a cosmopolitan idyll for middle and upper class Black Americans, is covered in Chapter 2, “Little Rock; ‘The Negro Paradise.’” Chapter 3, “The Pursuit of Education: Elementary and High School,” situates Price’s education within her parents’ professional accomplishments: her father was a dentist, inventor, painter, and writer; her mother a real estate agent, pianist, and music teacher (who was Price’s first teacher). Chapter 4, “The New England Conservatory of Music,” focuses on Price’s collegiate studies in Boston from 1903 to 1906. She pursued degrees in organ and piano pedagogy while studying composition with George Chadwick, the school’s founder and music director.

As a middle-class Black woman, Price was expected and ready to use her skills to educate others. Chapter 5, “Return to Little Rock,” looks at her teaching career, first at Cotton Plant-Arkadelphia Academy (1906–1907) and Shorter College (1907–1910), institutions founded to educate freed Black residents. Chapter 6, “Clark University and Marriage,” is a mixture of professional accomplishments and personal tragedies. Her father passed away in 1910; her mother (and Brown speculates Price’s older brother) decided to pass for white; and Price led Clark University at Atlanta’s music department from 1910 to 1912. Her 1912 marriage to civil rights attorney Thomas J. Price brought her back to Little Rock. After the death of their infant son, Price raised their two daughters, Florence Louise and Edith Cassandra, ran a private studio, composed, and grew her professional networks. Amidst an environment growing more hostile and violent towards its Black residents, Little Rock was still home. Until 1927, when the violence got too close. Florence Louise became the target of a retaliatory white mob. Price and her daughters fled to Chicago; Thomas followed soon after.

Brown uses the Chicago relocation to move to Part II: “The ‘Dean’ of Negro Composers of the Midwest.” This section focuses on Price’s critically acclaimed repertoire and networking activities. Chapter 7, “VeeJay and the Black Metropolis,” situates Price within the vibrancy of Chicago’s South Side. The Windy City had been a part of her life for several years: summer courses at the Chicago Music College and visits with her aunt Oliver Gulliver Lucas, wife of attorney J. Grey Lucas, a fixture of Black Chicago society.[9] Price wrote popular songs under the pen name Vee Jay. Unlike her contemporaries George Gershwin and William Grant Still, Price was less focused on professional fluidity than addressing her economic needs; her goal was to be a classical composer.

Chapter 8, “‘My Soul’s Been Anchored in de Lord’” covers Price’s divorce from her abusive husband. In 1931, Price filed and was granted a divorce and custody of her children. She also submitted her Symphony in E minor for the Wanamaker Competition. Chapter 9, “Black Satin Clothes at the Fair,” covers the professional and critical aftermath: her symphony won a Wanamaker prize and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) premiered it in 1933. The performance, part of the Chicago World’s Fair Century of Progress concert, was the first time a major orchestra performed a symphony by a Black woman. Chapter 10, “Spirituals to Symphonies: A Century of Progress,” covers the critical reception and aesthetic significance of the Symphony in E minor.[10]

Chapter 11, “The Symphony in E Minor,” places the work in the aesthetic precedents of The Black Nationalist School.[11] Of particular note is Price’s use of juba dance for the third movement: adhering to tradition while presenting a new aesthetic standard.[12] Chapter 12, “O Sing a New Song,” focuses on the Concerto in One Movement for piano and orchestra (1934) and the multi-day event O Sing a New Song, an extension of the World’s Fair that celebrated Black cultural progress. One concert featured Price conducting her student-colleague Margaret Bonds in a performance of the concerto. Chapter 13, “The Piano Concerto in One Movement,” delves into the work’s structure and content, illustrating how Price used classical and folk idioms to create new precedents of music form.

Chapter 14, “Performing Again,” shows how Price used club membership to expand her network and professional opportunities. Chapter 15, “Professional Recognition: Reconciling Gender, Class, and Race,” provides the most critical analysis of race and gender in Price’s career.[13] Her letters to Boston Symphony music director Serge Koussevitsky are some of the few extant examples of how she described her music and vision of an American school of composition:

“Having been born in the South and having spent most of my childhood there I believe I can truthfully say that I understand the real Negro music. In some of my work I make use of the idiom undiluted. Again, at other times it merely flavors my themes. And at still other times thoughts come in the garb of the other side of my mixed racial background. I have tried to for practical purposes to cultivate and preserve a facility of expression in both idioms, altho [sic] I have an unwavering and compelling faith that a national music very beautiful and very American can from the melting pot just as the nation itself has done.”[14]

Chapter 16, “The WPA Years,” covers the commission and premiere of Price’s third symphony, funded through the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Chapter 17, “The Chicago Renaissance,” foregrounds Price’s contribution to that creative movement of the 1930s through the 1950s. Chapter 18, “The Symphony No. 3,” parses Price’s formal symphonic precedents and stylistic expansions through her use of jazz progressions and more adventurous orchestrations.

Chapter 19, “Final Years: The Heart of a Woman,” looks at Price’s creative partnerships and commissions. Composer Harry T. Burleigh (1866–1949) and internationally renowned vocalist Marian Anderson (1897–1993), were some of Price’s closest colleagues. Anderson regularly programmed Price’s “Songs to the Dark Virgin” and “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord.” Price continued to compose and was preparing for a postponed trip to England at the time of her death in 1953.

In the “Postscript,” Brown recognizes Price’s critical successes while acknowledging Price herself was not fully satisfied with her career trajectory. Dr. Carlene Brown, Rae Linda Brown’s sister, is the author of the “Afterward,” a beautiful tribute to Brown’s life, work, and mission to introduce more people to Florence B. Price.

Readers of Brown’s previous work may find aspects of this book redundant, especially the analytic chapters. For those disappointed the Price-Anderson collaboration did not receive more detail, be sure to consult Alisha Lola Jones’ illuminating NPR article.[15] The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price is a much needed addition to scholarship on Black composers, American music history, Black women’s creative lives, and Florence Price herself. I look forward to reading (and contributing to!) the research that this book engenders.[16]


About the Reviewer: A. Kori Hill is a music historian, writer, and PhD candidate based in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is a contributing writer for I Care if You Listen and a contracted writer with the Seattle Symphony and Castle of Our Skins. Her dissertation, “Creating a Nationalist Modernism: The Concertos of Florence B. Price,” provides a new cultural framework to contextualize Price’s style within 20th century New Negro modernism.


[1] Lawrence Schenbeck, “Music, Gender, and ‘Uplift’ in The Chicago Defender, 1928–1937,” in The Musical Quarterly 81, no. 3 (1997): 344–70

[2] Rae Linda Brown, Selected Orchestral Music of Florence B. Price (1888–1953) in the Context of her Life and Work” (Ph.D. diss. Yale University, 1987); Brown, “Florence B. Price and Margaret Bonds: The Chicago Years,” Black Music Research Bulletin 12, no. 2 (1990): 11–14; Brown, “William Grant Still, Florence Price, and William Dawson: Echoes of the Harlem Renaissance,” Black Music in the Harlem Renaissance: A Collection of Essays, ed. Samuel A. Floyd (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1990), 71–86; Brown, “The Woman’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago and Florence B. Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement,” American Music 11, no. 2 (1993): 185–205; Brown, “Florence B. Price’s ‘Negro Symphony’ in Temples for Tomorrow: Looking Back at the Harlem Renaissance (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 84–98; Brown, “Lifting the Veil: The Symphonies of Florence B. Price” in Florence Price: Symphonies No. 1 and 3, Music of the United States of America (MUSA), vol. 19 (Middleton, WI: A-R Editions, Inc., 2008), xv–lv

[3] Carlene J. Brown, “Afterword” in The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price by Rae Linda Brown (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2020), 239

[4] Francisco Salazar, “G. Schirmer. Inc to Publish Florence Price’s Music Catalog,” OperaWire (Nov 21, 2018) https://operawire.com/g-schirmer-inc-to-publish-florence-prices-music-catalog/

[5] The International Florence Price Festival, https://www.pricefest.org/

[6] Er-Gene Kahng, “Violin Concerto No. 2” and “Violin Concerto No. 1,” recorded May 2017, tracks 1–4 on Florence Price: Violin Concertos, Albany Records, compact disc

[7] Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr., “Forward” in The Heart of a Woman, xiv

[8] Brown, The Heart of a Woman, 10

[9] “In Chicago and Its Suburbs,” The Chicago Defender (Chicago, IL), Jun 15, 1912. https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/docview/493173678/A0F9C55E39D847AFPQ/6?accountid=14244; “Mrs. J. Gray Lucas Attends Theatre,” The Chicago Defender (Chicago, IL), Mar 11, 1911. https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/docview/493187634/F23C5F54B3374020PQ/1?accountid=14244; “Mrs. Price Returns Home,” The Chicago Defender (Chicago, IL), Sep 7, 1918. https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/docview/493388245/8FADDDD05DB34150PQ/1?accountid=14244

[10] Douglas Shadle, Antonín Dvořák’s New World Symphony (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021)

[11] Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans: A History 3rd Edition (New York: W.W. Norton Company, c. 1971, 1997), 268

[12] The third movements of symphonies are typically based on a dance form or character, such as a minuet-trio or scherzo; Price’s use of juba dance is significant as one of the earliest examples of an African/African American dance form used as the basis for a symphonic movement

[13] Though misogynoir was undoubtedly at play, Brown does not use this term in the text. For more information on misogynoir, a framework that analyses the development and function of anti-black misogyny, consult Moya Bailey, Misogynoir Transformed: Black Women’s Digital Resistance (New York: NYU Press, 2021)

[14] Brown, The Heart of a Woman, 187

[15] Alisha Lola Jones, “Lift Every Voice: Marian Anderson, Florence B. Price and The Sound of Black Sisterhood,” NPR (Aug 30, 2019) https://www.npr.org/2019/08/30/748757267/lift-every-voice-marian-anderson-florence-b-price-and-the-sound-of-black-sisterh

 

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