Florence Price’s song The Heart of a Woman is not a new discovery — it was published in 2003 and has been re-published at least two other times.[1] It was also discussed in Bethany Jo Smith’s Master’s thesis[2] and it inspired the title of Rae Linda Brown’s forthcoming life-and-works study of Price.[3]

And yet the song remains new. For one thing, its text — published in 1918 by Georgia Douglas Johnson (1880–1966), an African American woman who moved north from the deep south to one of the nation’s major urban centers further n orth— was surely one with which Price could identify. Additionally, its text lays bare the speciousness of society’s rationalization for its subjugation of Otherness — an alterity that here literally applies to sex, but also (as Smith pointed out[4]) extends to the issue of race, via poetic techniques such as signifyin(g), binaristic simplifications, and euphemism. The centrality of the theme of race was obvious to contemporaries such as Robert T. Kerlin, who noted in his review of the book in The Outlook that “without one word or hint of race in all the book there is yet between its covers the unwritten, unwritable tragedy of that borderland race which knows not where it belongs in the world. A sadder book has not appeared among us.”[5]

“The unwritten, unwritable tragedy of that borderland race which knows not where it belongs in the world”: those words resonate with the life of an African American woman who claimed partial Mexican descent in order to increase her chances of acceptance into the New England Conservatory; who in 1927 found the courage to leave behind the brutal racial violence of the Arkansas that was her parental home in order to start a better, safer life for herself and her family in Chicago, one of millions of souls in the Great Migration; who created one musical masterpiece after another even as her most basic human rights were challenged, often violently, in the racial turbulence of the mid-twentieth century.

Not least, The Heart of a Woman typifies Price’s ability to pack an extraordinary amount of music, of depth, into a conspicuously short piece. It lasts just over a minute and a half in performance — but it is an emotional journey not to be forgotten. Not only do the obviously blues-influenced harmonies (evident from the outset) make clear that, for Price at least, this text was about race as well as sex, but at the end of her song Price gives us a musical glimpse of that soaring fulfilment born of freedom that Johnson’s poem denies: briefly but powerfully, Price’s music claims for her performers and audiences a joy that the poem denies them.

The following note is adapted from of The Heart of a Woman published by G. Schirmer (New York) last year:

The Heart of a Woman is the first of forty-eight poems in the eponymous collection by Georgia Doug­las Johnson (1880–1966).[6] Born into a mixed-race family in Atlanta, Georgia, Johnson (née Camp) was hailed by William Stanley Braithwaite as “the foremost woman poet of the [Black] race,” a writer of “flame-like intensity and delicate music” who “renders and interprets the mysterious and inexplicable secrets of femininity.”[7] It is no coincidence that the poem was published in 1918, during the final heated and controversial, but eventually successful, push to win enfranchisement for (White) women in U.S. electoral politics. The poem likens the expansive, soaring vision of Woman’s heart in freedom to a bird soaring freely, and pits this image against the narrow constraints of the ostensibly “sheltering bars” of “some alien cage” that “break” the bird as it tries to soar but is forced to “[try] to forget that it has dreamed of the stars” — an allegorical but clear reference to the anti-suffrage voices of the day who purported that denying women the freedom to vote and insisting that women work only in the home was actually protecting women’s better interests. Johnson’s poem takes a dim view of those societal restrictions on women, likening the symbolic bird’s soaring in freedom to dawn and the cage’s restrictions to night, bluntly labeling life within the cage’s “sheltering bars” the bird’s “plight,” and bitterly restating the word “breaks” no fewer than three times in the last line.

Florence Price made this poem her own. Unlike Johnson’s lyric, which contains no overt reference to race, Price’s musical language employs blue thirds and other melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic devices characteristic of Black repertoires, pointedly suggesting that the denial of freedom was one that befell not only women, but also and especially Black women. Moreover, whereas Johnson’s poem ends pessimistically, Price concludes with a musical suggestion of freedom: just as her setting of “those echoes the heart calls home” climaxes on a high G in the vocal line and continues upward first to C and then to the supertonic F in the piano before falling back into the middle registers (mm. 11–13), at the end of the poem Price repeats the melodic ascent — but now the voice continues along with the piano to the tonic E flat or G, and the piano further extends its flight of freedom to the uppermost tonic in the composition (E flat4). This final roaming afar on life’s turrets and vales is musically accomplished by the music’s figurative struggle to break loose in the chromatic ascent B flat — B — C — D flat — D — E flat, where Price repeats the word “breaks” not three times, as Johnson had done, but four. Johnson’s concluding bitter pessimism is thus replaced by Price’s musical vision of the fulfillment that freedom brings.

[1] Sylvia Glickman and Martha Furman Schleifer, eds., Women Composers: Music through the Ages, vol. 7 (New York : G.K. Hall & Co. 2003); Florence B. Price, The Heart of a Woman, ed. Rae Linda Brown (Fayetteville, Arkansas: Classical Vocal Reprints, 2009); Florence B. Price, The Heart of a Woman, ed. John Michael Cooper (New York: G. Schirmer, 2019).

[2] Bethany Jo Smith, “‘Song to the Dark Virgin’: Race and Gender in Five Art Songs of Florence B. Price” (M.M. thesis, University of Cincinnati, 2007), 85–89.

[3] Rae Linda Brown, ed. Guthrie P. Ramsey, jr., The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price (Urbana: University of Illinois; due out in June, 2020). Brown/Ramsey discusses the song on pp. 222–23.

[4] Smith, “‘Song to the Dark Virgin’: Race and Gender,” 70–71.

[5] Robert T. Kerlin, “Some Singing Johnsons,” The Outlook 128 (August 3, 1921): 550.

[6] Georgia Douglas Johnson, The Heart of a Woman and Other Poems (Boston: The Cornhill Company, 1918).

[7] William Stanley Braithwaite, “Some Contemporary Poets of the Negro Race,” The Crisis 17, no. 6 (April, 1919): 277–80 at 279.

Originally published at https://cooperm55.wixsite.com on May 3, 2020.