By Sarah Baer
The recent publication of Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price marks a bittersweet celebration. This definitive biography of Price, long awaited, is an invaluable addition to the field of feminist musicology, and joins the (thankfully) growing list of biographies of neglected women composers. We are only saddened that the author of this work, Dr. Rae Linda Brown, is no longer with us to celebrate its great success.
Dr. Brown held an M.A. in African American Studies and a Ph.D. in Musicology from Yale University. Her dissertation was on the life and symphonic work of Florence B. Price, who she championed for many years. Dr. Brown edited scores, gave lectures, and wrote about Price and her music at every opportunity. This biography, published posthumously, is in many ways Brown’s final and greatest tribute to Price, an amazing woman and composer. Thanks go to Dr. Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr. who completed the final edits to the work, and Carlene J. Brown, Rae Linda’s sister who saw the book project to completion. All who are concerned with lifting the voices of those who have been marginalized can be grateful for the publication of this work.
The volume offers insight into one of America’s great composers. Price, being a deeply private person, left little evidence to be discovered after her death. Dr. Brown searched archives, sought out family and friends, and was able to piece together the remarkable story of Price’s triumphs and heartbreaks.
Born in Little Rock, Arkansas to a distinguished Black family, Price had remarkable advantages as a child in developing her talents in music. Which is not to say that she didn’t face the brutalities of racism from early on, being raised in the segregated South, something that her mother, in particular, tried to protect her from. When attending New England Conservatory her mother encouraged her to “pass” as Mexican instead of embracing her Black heritage, in order to escape the prevalent prejudice. This was not a practice that she would repeat after she left New England – instead she fully embraced her Black heritage and purposefully incorporated aspects of Black musical traditions into the scores she would compose in the coming years. Her talents as a composer and pianist/organist were well documented during her school years, and in evidence in the work she was able to secure later in life.
Though Price returned to Arkansas after completing her education in Boston, the era of Jim Crow forced Price and her family out of the South, joining the Great Migration to Chicago. It was there that she would find a Black Renaissance and a community in which she could expand her talents outside of teaching music lessons, turning to large score composition. Dr. Brown explores all of the ways in which Price was able to find a place for herself and her music in Chicago. From being active in the local Black churches and their musical endeavors, to membership with the National Association of Negro Musicians, and winning awards that would lead to the premiere of her First Symphony by the Chicago Philharmonic – the first work by a Black woman to be performed by a major symphony orchestra – tracing Price’s life through the most difficult to the most joyous informs the reader about the unmistakable talent of this composer.
That Price, herself, was hesitant to speak of her own achievements – evidenced in part by her daughters’ later work to spread the news of their mother’s accomplishments – make it seem as though there is not great pride in her music. But that is hardly the case. Dr. Brown documents Price’s many attempts to get her works published and performed more widely, with her dream to have her pieces heard on the East Coast. And finally – finally! – that dream is becoming a reality with new attention and appreciation being paid to this tremendous artist.
This book, this life’s work, was deeply important to Dr. Brown, who spoke about the personal significance of Price’s story many times in speeches and lectures throughout her life. Carlene Brown included one such instance in the Afterword of the book:
I started thinking about the invisibility of this black woman, who grew up in the segregated south, yet went to one of the best music conservatories in the nation, returned to the segregated south, but ended up having her orchestral music performed by leading American orchestras. Who was she? There was a story and I needed to tell it. I needed to bring her from invisibility to visibility and document her life and her music so that her legacy could be a lived legacy. She needed to be included in the history books.
Dr. Brown’s work as a scholar is hugely significant, but so was her work and inspiration as an educator. Throughout her life she continually inspired her students to “keep digging” to learn more, uncover more, and hope for the buried treasure that is waiting. And occasionally that treasure is found – as was the case with Price’s Violin Concertos nos. 1 and 2, and Symphony no. 4 in D min., found in 2009. Alex Ross wrote about Price and the recently discovered music in The New Yorker in 2018.
The Heart of Woman is a vital addition to the library of anyone interested in the life and work of forgotten composers. Throughout the text Dr. Brown not only informs us of the challenges that Price faced and overcame, but also how to overcome challenges in researching these individuals that history has forgotten. We can all be hopeful that this text will inspire young scholars to tackle these difficult research problems and bring back into the light the voices that have been too long forgotten and silenced.
The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price by Rae Linda Brown is published by University of Illinois Press.