While pursuing her master’s degree at Yale University in the 1970s, Rae Linda Brown researched and cataloged music scores in the school’s James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of Negro Arts and Letters. Along the way, she encountered Florence Price’s Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, and became enamored with the 20th-century composer who had largely — and unfairly — been forgotten.
In 1933, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, the first work by an African-American woman to be presented by a major orchestra. In recent years, the CSO has become an important force in the rediscovery and championing of the composer’s music, a process that continues April 23-25 and 28 when it performs the Symphony No. 3 (1938-40), under Music Director Riccardo Muti.
Born in Little Rock, Ark., Price moved to Chicago with her husband and two daughters in the late 1920s after incidents of racial violence in the city. After a divorce in 1931, she had to scrape together a living for her and two daughters, including playing organ for silent films and writing music for radio ads.
But she also scored some of her biggest successes in that decade, ultimately producing a wide-ranging catalog that includes four symphonies, three concertos and abundant chamber music and organ works. Despite these notable achievements, Price’s music was soon overlooked after her death in 1953 because of changing musical tastes, and there is little doubt, prejudices surrounding her gender and race.
Brown, whose posts included chair of the department of music at the University of California-Irvine, made it her lifelong mission to write a biography of Price, a project that she completed just before her death in 2017. The resulting 336-page book, titled The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price, is set to be published in June by the University of Illinois Press.
Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr., the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor of Music at the University of Pennsylvania, served as the editor for the book and wrote a foreword. The following is an interview with Ramsey about Price’s legacy and Brown’s devotion to the composer and her music:
How did you become involved with the project? What were your contributions to the book?
I had known of Rae Linda since around 1988 or ’89, and, at some point during my graduate career or when I was an assistant professor, I was her research assistant on this book project. I think one of the first projects I had to do was to read the entire run of the Chicago Defender from 1919 until the 1950s and find every reference to Florence Price. It was great fun. (Laughs.) We were friends and colleagues, and I just happened to call after Rae had passed and asked about the state of the book because I knew it existed. I hadn’t heard that it was in the pipeline for publishing, and then we discussed that Rae would have wanted me to do it.
So then you went on and served as editor and also wrote a foreword, right?
Right. And what that constitutes is getting from the [University of Illinois] Press all the [expert] readers’ comments over the years she had been working on the book and making sure everything lined up. There were some handwritten notes in the margins from maybe one of her last passes through the book. So you just try to see how much you can reconcile and how much was unnecessary to touch. But the book was actually in very, very good condition. She was an excellent writer and had clearly stated her case in the book.
What do you think are two or three of the key conclusions that Brown makes about Price and her music?
One of the big ones is her discussion of how Price crafted an individual voice within the context of what she calls Afro-Romanticism, which is how black composers used the Romantic language of the 19th century and coupled that with music or gestures that had their history in African-American music. Many composers of that moment did that, but Price did it in her own idiosyncratic way and was quite successful at it. The other thing I learned about Price is the degree to which she was a very hard working and hustling musician who was doing any and everything she could do to support herself when there were few networks of black women composers to depend on. So she was teaching. She was writing children’s music. She was devoting herself to her large-scale works, and she just seemed to be working all the time. You get a real sense of what it meant to be a black woman in that business at the historical moment.
What do you think is the most surprising aspect of Price’s life or music that is revealed in the book?
For me, it was learning that in one of her marriages, Price was what we would call a battered woman today. She divorced and became a single mother of two children and still maintained her artistic career, so it breaks through the stereotype of the solitary, single-minded male artist dealing with his music. Florence Price was dealing with something that many women of her moment dealt with and that is how to deal with violence and disrespect and still get your work done. The other thing I want to say, too, about the surprising aspects of her life is that she actually created and was part of networks of women who were trying to be heard and support each other. It’s a feminist text in every way.
How do you hope the book will shape perceptions of Price?
I would like to see her understood as a creative woman whose life was shaped by various points of African-American history from post-Reconstruction to the civil rights movement, and how each one of those moments shaped her productivity and her music. Sometimes, we tend to take Western art music and not think of it as contextualized in its moment. It sort of transcends the moment. What I think the book will do is show us how Florence Price’s life and music participate in all of these historical points of interest.
Where do you think Price should be properly ranked among American composers of the 20th century?
I certainly think she should be considered a peer of William Grant Still, William Dawson and Aaron Copland, because she is creating, as Rae Linda points out, a singular voice that would have been understood as an Americanist one. And what I find fascinating is that when she is at her most productive, perhaps in the ’30s, she was also involved with WPA [Works Progress Administration] grants. They were funding lots of art, funding audiences to hear free music, and she was a more conservative voice, if you would put it that way. There was a lot of avant-garde stuff being written at that time, but during financial austerity, people were not so much participating in the modernism that was going on but doing things that would build their audiences and build networks. And I think she should be thought about in that context as well.
Why do you think interest in Price and her music is cresting now?
That might be traced to two impulses. No. 1, I think, arts institutions are understanding the need to widen the scope of what they offer and what they program beyond the canon that has been handed down. One way to do that is to start to program the work of women and the work of people of color who have been doing this work all along. And the other impulse is that in this moment of uncompromised feminism and feminist theory, feminist practice and this whole idea of moving women’s works from the margin into the center of our considerations, Florence Price is the perfect example of a woman who had to fight hard to be heard. So as we try to revise what we think of as important work, I think her work is an example of that.
Could you offer a few thoughts on Price’s Symphony No. 3?
For me, the idea that this is symphony that introduced Rae Linda to her decades-long search and decades-long dig for every piece information that she could humanly find on Florence Price, I just think it is a beautiful circle, that this piece that was funded at a point when Florence Price was almost penniless and homeless [it won first prize in the 1932 Rodman Wanamaker Competition], that it would be played by one of the greatest musical units on Planet Earth is simply rewarding and amazing.