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Composed: 1938-39

Orchestration: 4 flutes (4th=piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd=English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd=bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 5 percussion (tambourine, snare drum, cymbal, bass drum, triangle, crash cymbals, wood block, sandpaper, castanets, slapstick, gong, orchestral bells, xylophone), harp, celesta, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 11, 2022, Jeri Lynne Johnson conducting

About this Piece

One might expect the historic premiere of Florence Price’s First Symphony by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933 to have won her a modicum of access to that orchestra and others for her later compositions—but that was not the case. Her First Symphony remained unpublished until 2008, her Second Symphony is missing, and her Fourth Symphony (1945) went unperformed in her lifetime and unpublished until 2020. How could the work of such a brilliant and significant symphonist remain so obscure for so long?

Price’s letters answer that question plainly. She repeatedly tried to persuade conductor Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951) to program her music—in vain. One of her letters to him, dated 5 July 1943, describes the difficulties she faced outright:

To begin with, I have two handicapsthose of sex and race. I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins. Knowing the worst, then, would you be good enough to hold in check the possible inclination to regard a woman’s composition as long on emotionalism but short on virility and thought content; until you shall have examined some of my work? ... As to the handicap of race, ... I should like to be judged on merit alonethe great trouble having been to get conductors, who know nothing of my work ... to even consent to examine a score.

Fortunately, Price’s Third Symphony did not go entirely unheard in her lifetime: It was performed by Valter Poole and the Michigan WPA Symphony Orchestra on 6 and 8 November 1940. Those performances were a success, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt reported enthusiastically on the work in her syndicated newspaper column, My Day—but that was not enough to rescue the work from the oblivion to which the “handicaps” of its composer’s race and sex doomed it. It was not heard again in her lifetime and remained unperformed until 2001 and unpublished until 2008. Only now is it beginning to be heard in concert halls with any regularity.

Nevertheless, Florence Price’s Third Symphony towers over its surviving predecessor in originality and maturity of conception—and the composer’s correspondence shows that she understood its significance fully. In a 1940 letter she stated that it was “Negroid in character and expression” but hastened to clarify that it did not merely replicate the African American tradition as it was represented in her First Symphony. The later work, she said, was “a cross section of present-day Negro life and thought with its heritage of that which is past, paralleled or influenced by concepts of the present day” (emphasis added)—a reference to the Third Symphony’s cultivation of dissonant passages, jarring percussion, and other modernist expressive devices that were absent from the First Symphony but central to 20th-century music in general, and to much of Price’s later music.  

These descriptions do not just reveal Price’s ideas about the music of this ambitious work. Even more, they reveal that she understood that it signaled a new stage in her development as a composer and paved the way for some of the most important and startlingly original compositions of her entire career.

Price’s Third Symphony is cast in four movements, all pitting traditional African American and modernist elements against each other. The first movement foregrounds 20th-century styles from the outset, beginning with an unsettled slow introduction and moving from there to a turbulent and dissonant main theme, allegro; only with the lush and expansive second theme, entrusted first to the solo trombone, do the flavors of Black vernacular styles come to the foreground. Those flavors launch the tranquil Andante ma non troppo, but the serene beauty of its opening section is repeatedly interrupted by unsettled whole-tone material that reminds us that this is, after all, music of the 20th century, not the 19th. The third movement is an African American Juba dance, but it also includes a blues-influenced theme that introduces a new facet of Black vernacular styles into the symphony. And the scherzo finale is a kaleidoscopic exploration of orchestral virtuosity and swirling colors. Although African American stylistic influences make themselves felt here, on the whole, the turbulence and harmonic adventure of mid-20th-century classical music predominate. Time and again, the restlessness promises to subside, and time and again, the barely established calm is broken—until finally Price abandons any attempt to resolve the conflict between the two. The Symphony’s close is a tour de force of swirling, chaotic abandon punctuated by dissonance and chromaticism, and its final bars are a fury of roaring percussion and chordal interjections that finally manage to reclaim the work from turbulence and discord—the conflicting and discordant forces of the musical world, and the African American condition, given eloquent voice in this symphony.

John Michael Cooper