The works of Florence Price might be unknown to most listeners, but the reasons for that have little if anything to do with the quality of her music. Though the African-American composer achieved some important successes, especially in her adopted hometown of Chicago, her life and legacy suffered from 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 away 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 Price finally gaining the attention she deserves. In 2018, critic Alex Ross wrote an influential piece in the New Yorker titled “The Rediscovery of Florence Price,” and major artists and orchestras have programmed 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 titled RIVERS: Nature. Power. Culture. (It also has scheduled Price’s Ethiopia’s Shadow in America for concerts Nov. 5-8.) For 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. As a graduate student, she was introduced to Price’s works while cataloging 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, The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price, is to be published June 22 by the University of Illinois Press.
Before her death in 2017, Brown completed this book, and it is a major achievement by any measure. Though it has a few weak spots, it is the first 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-American community 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 racial violence in her hometown and domestic abuse at the hands of her first husband. In Chicago, 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 Chicago World’s Fair of 1933.
Brown does a first-rate job of setting the saga of Price’s life in context. She lays out the history of racial relations in Little Rock and elsewhere in the South during Price’s time there; she also offers a rich portrayal of African-American life in Chicago during the early 20th century, such as “The Stroll,” a conglomeration of theaters, cabarets and dance halls on State Street between 31st and 35th streets, and makes important observations about class differences within the black community. Perhaps most important, she discusses the history of the African-American classical music scene, especially in Chicago but also across the country. (As Brown points out, much less has been written about this musical world compared with 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 her prose could use a bit more flair at times. Aside from some letters that offer telling insights and quotations from one of Price’s daughters, additional 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.
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 over-all 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 shortcoming is the lack of a complete list of Price’s works, which does not seem to exist anywhere else and would be a huge asset, 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. Let’s hope that some of these missing works will surface amid the renewed attention focused on her.
It is extraordinary to think that a major American composer has been essentially hidden to 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.
A version of this review was originally published by Classical Voice North America, the journal of the Music Critics Association of North America.
Kyle MacMillan served as the classical music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. Now a freelance journalist in Chicago, he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times, the Wall Street Journal, Opera News, Chamber Music and Early Music America.
TOP: Detail from a CD jacket for a disc of Florence Price works, recorded by the Women’s Philharmonic and billed as the first commercial recording of the composer’s works. It was released in 2001 by Koch International.