Rae Linda Brown, The Heart of a Woman: the Life and Music of Florence B. Price. Edited and with a foreword by Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr. Afterword by Carlene J. Brown. University of Illinois Press, 2020. 295 pp.
Reviewed by Kendra Preston Leonard, Silent Film Sound and Music Archive
There has been an enormous explosion of interest in Black American composer Florence Price (1887-1953) over the last several years. While Price was celebrated for her works, which were frequently performed during her lifetime, after her death, many of her scores were lost, and orchestras, being bastions of white supremacism and promoters of male superiority, largely stopped playing her music. In 2009, a cache of her works was found in Chicago, and since then, as editors have made the music available, performers and scholars alike have begun promoting and studying Price’s music again. A number of outstanding recordings of Price’s work made by violinist Er-Gene Kahng and pianist Samantha Ege have been released over the last three years, happily coinciding with the publication, at long last, of Rae Linda Brown’s biography of Price, The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price, which was edited by Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr. after Brown’s death in 2017.
Brown spent much of her research career dedicated to finding information on Price and putting it into context with the social conditions that surrounded the composer and her family, from Reconstruction through the Harlem and Chicago Renaissances and into the Civil Rights Movement. The result is a very solid and well-written introduction to Price’s life and works. The book is primarily a biography of Price with a bit of music analysis. Non-musicians can easily skip over the short, more technical sections and still gain an understanding of Price’s music and the context in which it was written. As with most biographies, this one is linear in design and comprised of two parts: “Southern Roots,” in which Brown explores Price’s family history and life up to her move to Chicago in 1928; and “The ‘Dean’ of Negro Composers of the Midwest,” focusing on Price’s rise through the classical music world. In the first section, Brown carefully details the Price family’s professional and social status, the education Price received, the performances she gave, the colleagues and friends she developed, and the cultural climate at her early teaching appointments at Shorter College in Little Rock, Arkansas, and later at Clark University in Atlanta. Here Brown demonstrates the kind of traditional classical music curricula Price studied and taught, and the philosophies of and attitudes towards the creation of Black classical music in America. The section ends with the analysis of several of Price’s early works, including her first surviving art song, “To My Little Son,” which dates to around 1912.
The second and more robust section of the book centers around the musical life of Chicago during the Great Migration and Price’s place within it. By the late 1920s, with her children in school, Price was able to focus on composing most of the time. She wrote numerous short piano pieces for children, popular songs (under the pseudonym “Vee Jay”) in the ubiquitous Tin Pan Alley style of the time, and arrangements of spirituals. These last works were performed by Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price (no relation), boosting the composer’s reputation. As Price’s works become more complex, Brown provides more explanation and analysis of them, including musical examples. Brown’s brief description and explication of the Fantasie Negre, composed in 1932, provides an excellent example of her clarity of writing about music for general audiences:
In the variations, the melody is tossed between the hands but it is never disguised. There are several changes in texture, In variations one, two, and four, the melody is accompanied by a contrapuntal line that becomes increasingly more chromatic. In variation 3, Price’s fondness for chromatic accompaniment provides a highly energized foil for the chordal melody in the left hand. (107)
Brown devotes an entire chapter to Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E minor from 1933, sussing out Price’s uses of Black American vernacular and religious musical elements including call-and-response, polyrhythms, and traditional dances. She also provides discussions of Price’s piano sonata in E minor; Dances in the Canebreaks, a piano suite; the Piano Concerto in One Movement; Symphony no. 3; and a handful of art songs and organ pieces. As a music scholar, I would like to have had somewhat more of a focus on the music itself. Brown has a tendency to speculate as to why Price made the musical choices she did, rather than offering insight into the works as they are. In writing about the Piano Concerto in One Movement, for example, there is a long passage about why Price might have decided not to include a recapitulation of the primary theme of the piece. This kind of speculation is an idle pastime that doesn’t help the reader or potential performers understand the piece more deeply or add meaningfully to the analysis of Price’s compositional process.
The Heart of a Woman serves its purpose as a resource for general readers interested in Price and her works. Brown’s contribution to the understanding of African American composers in the twentieth century cannot be overstated, and I hope that this book will serve as a point from which readers will dive into the more recent research on Price and the many new and excellent recordings of her works.