In Florence Price, A Composer Ripe For Rediscovery

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Michelle Cann was the soloist in 2018 performances of Florence Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement with the North Carolina Symphony, Miguel Harth-Bedoya conducting. (Michael Zirkle)

The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price, by Rae Linda Brown. Edited and with a foreword by Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr. and an afterword by Carlene J. Brown. University of Illinois Press, 2020.

BOOK REVIEW – There are reasons why you might never have heard of Florence Price, but they have little if anything to do with the quality of her music. Despite some important successes, the life and legacy of the African-American composer was unquestionably debilitated by discrimination based on race and gender. It also didn’t help that she was sometimes hesitant about promoting her accomplishments and spent her most productive years in the 1930s and ’40s in Chicago, a music center to be sure but one that was still separated from what was happening on the two coasts.

Only in the past decade – more than a half-century after her death in 1953 at age 66 – is the composer finally gaining the attention she deserves. In 2018, Alex Ross wrote an influential piece in The New Yorker titled “The Rediscovery of Florence Price,” and major artists and orchestras are beginning to program her works. Famed organist Paul Jacobs has featured her Suite for Organ, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra presented the evocative 1934 musical odyssey, Mississippi River Suite, as part of its 2013 festival “RIVERS: Nature. Power. Culture.” In conjunction with its 2020-21 WomenNOW series, the Philadelphia Orchestra is set to present its first complete performances of Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E minor.

No one has been a bigger or longer champion of Price and her music than Rae Linda Brown, who served on the faculties of the University of Michigan and University of California, Irvine. She discovered the composer as a graduate student while cataloguing the music in the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection at Yale University and devoted her 1987 doctoral dissertation to Price. She went on to speak about the composer before groups ranging from church organizations to international conferences, write assorted scholarly articles, and contribute entries to major music guides. Now Brown’s biography of Price, The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price, is to be published by the University of Illinois Press in June.

Brown died in 2017, but she completed this book, and it is a major achievement by any measure. Although it has certain limitations – more on those later – it is the first publication to offer a comprehensive, in-depth look at the composer’s life. The story begins in Little Rock, Ark., during a post-Reconstruction time when it was known as the “Negro Paradise” because of its middle- and upper-class African-Americans and relative harmony between the races. It goes on to chronicle her move to Chicago in the late 1920s, part of the Great Migration of African-Americans to the North, as she fled both rising racial violence in her hometown and domestic abuse at the hands of her first husband. She became a treasured figure in the city’s thriving black cultural scene and scored her biggest career triumphs, including the Chicago Symphony premiere of her Symphony No. 1 in conjunction with the World’s Fair of 1933.

Florence Price, 1940

Brown does a first-rate job of setting the chronicle of Price’s life in context. She lays out the history of racial relations in Little Rock and elsewhere in the South during the time the composer lived there and offers a rich portrayal of African-American life in Chicago during the early part of the 20th century, such as her depiction of “The Stroll,” a conglomeration of theaters, cabarets and dance halls on State Street between 31st and 35th streets. The author makes important observations about class differences within the black community and biases surrounding lighter and darker skin. Perhaps most important, she discusses the history of the African-American classical scene, especially in Chicago but also across the country. (As she points out, much less has been written about this musical world compared to other African-American musical sectors like jazz, gospel, and the blues.) While there were certain artists, such as contralto Marian Anderson, who were able to cross the racial divide, classical music was largely segregated during Price’s life. Chicago’s black community had a whole array of its own ensembles, choirs, and support organizations.

Brown tells her story in a workmanlike way, and it is possible to wish for prose with a bit more flair at times. And aside from some letters that offer telling insights and quotations from one of Price’s daughters, more glimpses into the composer’s personal life would have been welcome. Brown acknowledges this gap in an introductory section titled “Sources,” noting the “paucity of primary source material on Price herself,” such as only a few extant pages from what was apparently a much more extensive diary.

Biographer Rae Linda Brown (John Froschauer)

Aside from a few odd inconsistencies, such as an assertion that the score for the Symphony No. 4 in D minor is lost while a discography at the back shows a recording of the work, Brown’s scholarship comes off as detailed and thorough. She carefully outlines the composer’s idiomatic style, which draws on jazz, blues, and aspects of African-American folk culture, such as the Juba dance, which Price uses in several of her major compositions. Brown devotes a chapter each to three of the composer’s most significant orchestral works, the Symphony in E minor, the Piano Concerto in One Movement, and the Symphony No. 3.

What is missing is an overall assessment of Price’s rightful place in American classical-music history. Where does she rank in comparison to such notable contemporaries as Walter Piston, Howard Hanson, George Gershwin, and Aaron Copland, who were born in the decade or so after her? Another gap in this book is the lack of a complete list of Price’s compositions, which does not seem to exist anywhere else and would be a huge help, especially considering that some of her significant compositions are lost, such as The Wind and the Sea (1936), an octet for piano quintet and vocal ensemble. It can only be hoped that some of these missing works will come to light amid the renewed attention focused on her.

It is extraordinary to think that a major American composer has been essentially hidden right in history, her accomplishments shrouded by the lingering veils of discrimination and prejudice. As this biography makes clear, it’s time to give Florence Price and her music their due.

Kyle MacMillan served as the classical music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and Modern Luxury and writes for such national publications as the Wall Street Journal, Opera News, Chamber Music, and Early Music America.