Title: The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price
Author: Rae Linda Brown
Publisher: University of Illinois Press (Music in American Life series)
Formats: Book (hardcover, paperback, ebook)
Release date: June 22, 2020
The Heart of a Woman is the first full-length biography on Florence B. Price, the renowned African American composer. Based on Dr. Rae Linda Brown’s 1987 Ph.D. dissertation on Price, the author sadly did not live to see her expanded book published before succumbing to cancer in 2017.
As with many books of this type, one has the opportunity to learn surprising back stories behind our subjects’ rise. In this case, one of those stories involves Ms. Price’s father, Dr. James H. Smith (b. 1843 to free parents in Camden, DE), who became a successful dentist with a practice in Chicago’s downtown neighborhood known as The Loop. Regrettably, the fire of 1871 wiped him out, and in the aftermath the family relocated to Little Rock, Arkansas where again Dr. Smith prospered. Little Rock itself was another interesting back story, where a relatively healthy Black middle class community thrived for a time (not unlike Tulsa, OK which has been in the news lately for the fate of its Black community). That all changed as Jim Crow laws were enacted in the 1890s, of course.
Florence Beatrice Smith was born April 9, 1887 in Little Rock, where her father served as a strong presence in the Black community, hosting Frederick Douglass in 1889 and broadly furthering civic causes (especially education, another interesting back story). After completing high school in 1902, Florence was accepted at the New England Conservatory of Music where she double-majored, earning her organ Soloists Diploma and her Teachers Diploma in just three years. She also studied composition with George Whitefield Chadwick, and had many opportunities to perform as a recitalist. Of the 2000 students who were admitted with Florence in 1903, only 58 received degrees in June 1906, and Florence was the only student to complete two degrees.
Florence returned to Little Rock where she continued to compose, taught school and married lawyer Thomas Price. They lived comfortably but in the late 1920s, as lynchings became widespread, they felt compelled to move to the relative safety of Chicago where Price lived for the rest of her life.
In Chicago, Florence quickly established herself among the local musical communities: she performed organ at theaters and at her church; and she became a member of NANM and the ( previously all-white) Chicago Club of Women Organists, as well as the Musicians Club of Women and Illinois Federation of Music Clubs. She continued to give lessons and managed to get a fair number of her song settings and keyboard pieces performed and published. Florence entered and won the Wanamaker Contest for African American composers, receiving first prize for her Symphony in E Minor and another first prize for her Piano Sonata in E Minor. Her symphony came to the attention of Frederick Stock, who famously conducted it with his Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a June 15, 1933 concert in Chicago’s Auditorium Theater as part of the world’s fair celebration.
Florence clearly had a passion for symphonic composition, and much of the rest of this book provides detailed descriptions of each of her symphonies, piano and violin concertos, and song arrangements. Dozens of her song arrangements were shared with her friend, contralto Marian Anderson, who often featured Price’s songs in her recitals and recordings—most notably, the well-known “Songs to the Dark Virgin.”
Price was challenged with health problems throughout her life; her marriage dissolved by 1931 and she struggle to make ends meet. She was unable to pique the interest of Serge Koussevitzy at the Boston Symphony, despite a number of interesting letters detailed in the book. Her reputation continued to grow into the 1950s, when Sir John Barbirolli asked her to write an overture for his Halle Orchestra in Manchester, England. This was performed in 1951, but Price was unable to attend. She was making plans for her first European trip in May 1953, when she was suddenly stricken and hospitalized just a week prior to her trip. She died on June 3, 1953 of a cerebral hemorrhage.
The Heart of a Woman gathers many interesting details together for the first time. Price’s friendships and interaction with well-known Black composers and artists were interesting to learn about, especially Harry T. Burleigh, William Grant Still (also from Little Rock, eight years her junior), Margaret Bonds, and Marian Anderson. I do wish there were a complete listing of Price’s compositions, including manuscripts and publications; it’s frustrating to have to go to Wikipedia go find more information than is presented here. In an interview, Dr. Brown stated that “Florence Price wrote about 300 pieces of music.”
There is a discography, but recordings are only listed alphabetically by artist—not very helpful for trying to locate a recording of a particular work. Here again the reader will find better information elsewhere. I had two minor quibbles with the author’s back story on Black popular music in the 1920s-30s. On pg. 82 she states, “In 1905 [Jelly Roll] Morton collaborated with Joplin and Porter King on the celebrated “King Porter Stomp,” now a jazz standard.” I don’t believe there is any evidence that Morton and Joplin ever worked together, nor that Porter King had anything to do with Morton’s composition honoring him. On pg. 83 she writes, “It was in the 1920s and 1930 that blues piano, or boogie-woogie, was developed into an art form…” I hope she isn’t trying to suggest that blues piano and boogie-woogie are one and the same.
Florence Price had a summer home in St. Anne, IL (70 miles south of Chicago), where many of her manuscripts and papers were found in 2009, when the abandoned house was purchased for renovation (see the fascinating story at UALR Public Radio or Alex Ross’s version in the New Yorker).
An initial collection of Price’s papers and scores (6 boxes) was donated to the University of Arkansas by her daughter, Florence Price Robinson, in 1974. The 2009 discovery was acquired in 2010 (19 boxes) with additional items acquired in 2014. It is hoped that the University of Arkansas will find the time and resources to digitize and exhibit online some of Florence’s papers, as UPenn has recently done for Marian Anderson.
Rae Linda Brown has created a very readable and interesting account of Florence Price and her major compositions. In the afterword, Dr. Brown’s sister Carlene relates Rae Linda’s keynote address at a 2015 Florence Price Music Festival, where she describes the thrill of seeing Price’s lost scores for the first time: “I knew immediately the treasure that resided in the many boxes. […] And so, the end of this story is now really the beginning. […] It is for the next generation of music scholars to delve through the music, to study it, to perform, to record it, and to tell the rest of the story.”
Reviewed by Rob DeLand
VanderCook College of Music, Chicago