The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B Price by Rae Linda Brown

The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B Price by Rae Linda Brown

The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B Price by Rae Linda Brown
Published in America by the University Of Illinois Press on the 16th June 2020.

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Heart of a Woman offers the first-ever biography of Florence B. Price, a composer whose career spanned both the Harlem and Chicago Renaissances, and the first African American woman to gain national recognition for her works. Price's twenty-five years in Chicago formed the core of a working life that saw her create three hundred works in diverse genres, including symphonies and orchestral suites, art songs, vocal and choral music, and arrangements of spirituals.

Through interviews and a wealth of material from public and private archives, Rae Linda Brown illuminates Price's major works while exploring the considerable depth of her achievement. Brown also traces the life of the extremely private individual from her childhood in Little Rock through her time at the New England Conservatory, her extensive teaching, and her struggles with racism, poverty, and professional jealousies. In addition, Brown provides musicians and scholars with dozens of musical examples.

Compiling The Heart Of A Woman was very much a labour of love for Rae Linda Brown who did see her project through to completion, but died before its submission for publication. The evidence of Brown's extensive research is breathtaking and, although her scholarly prose style did occasionally become a little too dry for my tastes, overall I enjoyed reading this biography of a very talented women, Florence Price, of whom I had previously been completely unaware. Since studying for GCSE Music over a quarter of a century ago (eeek!) I haven't given much thought to classical music, but I was grateful that enough of the terminology had sunk in that I was able to follow Brown through her technical descriptions of Price's work. I loved that snippets of the sheet music are dotted about the text so I could see and imagine the examples to which Brown was referring. It would be wonderful if this biography could also be accompanied by a recording of some of the songs and perhaps a symphony or two as well. Having read so much about Price, by the end of The Heart Of A Woman I was keen to actually hear a selection of the most famous compositions so I was delighted to find a few YouTube videos of Price's work being performed. (If you're reading this review on my blog, Literary Flits, I've embedded two of my favourite YouTubes towards the end of the post.

In common with other biographies I have read where primary source material about the subject is scarce, Brown presents information about linked and surrounding themes in order to fill out her picture of Price's life. Newspapers such as the Chicago Defender regularly detailed her professional musical engagements though the 1930s and 1940s, however as a shy and private woman, Price preferred to keep her personal life to herself. Therefore some of her life story had to be inferred. I was impressed that Brown didn't use this device too frequently and also that her employment of complementary information always felt useful and as though it added to our portrait.

Florence Price and her music are receiving a very well deserved resurgence of interest and I am so pleased to have had this opportunity to read her biography at this point in time. I loved learning about the Chicago Renaissance too. The Heart Of A Woman, in my opinion, doesn't have the best of titles for a scholarly musical biography so I hope it will gain a serious readership despite that. I recommend it for anyone interested in discovering classical music history, African American history, and overlooked women.

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