BOOK REVIEW: Who Is Florence Price? Young Musicians Tell The Story Of A Girl And Her Music

Who is Florence Price book cover
'Who Is Florence Price?' Written and illustrated by students of the Special Music School at Kaufman Music Center NYC, and their teacher, Shannon Potts. Schirmer Trade Books

The music of Florence Price is heard often on NWPB, as recordings of her Symphonies, her Violin Concertos, and her piano works become increasingly available. The back-story of those recordings—the discovery of Price’s long-lost manuscripts, during the 1990s renovation of an old house outside Chicago–is now as much a part of gee-whiz American music lore as the recovery of Roman Totenberg’s violin, or Ravel’s visit to Harlem, hosted by Gershwin.

Still, if you find yourself asking, “Who is Florence Price?” you’re not alone. Which is why that’s the title of a lively new book for and by young readers. Sized for the small hand, brightly illustrated and engagingly narrated, it would make a perfect gift—and certainly a valuable addition to any school library—for any young creative person, but especially a girl, like Florence, who sees almost no one of her color or gender among the Beethovens, Bachs, or Mozarts she is learning about in music class.

The question in the book’s title repeats, as Florence’s story is told, and her talents unfold; she becomes famous, then forgotten, then rediscovered, in just 27 pages, over illustrations reminiscent of the bright colors of Jacob Lawrence’s work. The book’s final pages add a short biography with photos of the composer, a partial list of Price’s works, and suggestions for discussion.  

Even beyond the importance of Price’s achievement as a “first”– the first black woman to have her music performed by a major American orchestra– this little book celebrates perseverance.

In the face of rejection after rejection, the young authors write, “Late into the night, Florence sat at her piano and wrote music from the bottom of her heart.”  

And then: “One morning, Florence got a letter from Frederick Stock, who was the conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He wanted to perform her symphony. Florence was overjoyed. ‘Maybe there is hope after all,’ she said to the rising sun as her dreams came into reach.”

Starry city. Pages from 'Who is Florence Price?'

Courtesy of Schirmer Trade Books

 The illustrators, and the writers, are students in a New York City public-private partnership K-12 school –the Special Music School—that combines rigorous academic curriculum and comprehensive music education, with no financial barriers. The book answers the question its middle-school authors themselves had raised.

Reproductions of a Price manuscript and a historic concert program line the inside covers. Historic perspective comes full circle in the foreword by the busy American composer Jessie Montgomery, whose color and gender have not prevented her from spending this year as composer in residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra—the same orchestra that premiered Florence Price’s award-winning Symphony No. 1 in 1933.

Something else comes full circle with this little book: all the proceeds from its sale go to benefit the school where its authors and illustrators, and the next generation of students like them, will no longer have to ask, “Who Is Florence Price?”

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Three of the student authors of Who Is Florence Price? (left to right: Sebastián Núñez, Hazel Peebles and Sophia Shao), joined by their English teacher, Shannon Potts.

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