For this weekend’s “Wall Street Journal” I have written an impassioned encomium for William Dawson’s thrilling “Negro Folk Symphony” of 1934 — still (alas) buried treasure:
In 1926 the African-American poet Langston Hughes wrote a seminal Harlem Renaissance essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” The mountain “standing in the way of any true Negro art in America,” he declared, was an urge “toward whiteness,” a “desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.” Hughes cited, as an antidote, “the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul”: jazz and the blues.
Truly, America’s protean black musical mother lode has found expression in popular genres of its own invention—not string quartets, symphonies and operas. Nevertheless, a concurrent black classical music was pursued—a buried history today being exhumed. The notable interwar black symphonists comprise a short list of three: William Grant Still, Florence Price and William Levi Dawson. Their failure to excite attention was partly a consequence of institutional bias: African-Americans did not play in major American orchestras or conduct them. And there was also a pertinent aesthetic bias: The reigning modernist idiom was streamlined and clean, inhospitable to vernacular grit. It projected a sanitized “America.”
Over the past decade, both Still and Price have acquired new prominence. But the buried treasure is Dawson’s “Negro Folk Symphony” of 1934, whose three movements chart an ascendant racial odyssey. They notably embed such spirituals as “O Lemme Shine.” A heraldic horn call, symbolically linking Africa and America, binds the whole. Dawson (1899-1990), then 35 years old, had since 1931 led the Tuskegee Institute Choir. He had never before attempted a symphony.
The “Negro Folk Symphony” is anchored by its central slow movement, “Hope in the Night.” It begins with a dolorous English horn tune set atop a parched pizzicato accompaniment: “a melody,” Dawson writes in a program note, “that describes the characteristics, hopes, and longings of a Folk held in darkness.” A weary journey into the light ensues. Its eventual climax is punctuated by a clamor of chimes: chains of servitude. Finally, three gong strokes that prefaced the movement—“the Trinity,” says Dawson, “who guides forever the destiny of man”—are amplified by a seismic throb of chimes, timpani and strings.
If the symphony’s governing mold is European and (as Hughes put it) “standardized,” its energies remain uninhibited. Its lightning physicality of gesture—at one point, the music is intended to suggest “rhythmic clapping of hands and patting of feet”—exudes spontaneity, even improvisation. Dawson seizes the humor, pathos and tragedy of the sorrow songs of the cottonfield with an oracular vehemence. The best-known roughly contemporaneous American symphonies are the Third Symphonies of Aaron Copland and Roy Harris: leaner works favoring a modernist decorum. Dawson’s symphony, in comparison, exudes a wild folk energy driven by an exigent cause.
Notwithstanding its present obscurity, Dawson’s symphony received a galvanizing premiere by Leopold Stokowski and his Philadelphia Orchestra in 1934. Speaking from the stage, Stokowski called it “a wonderful development.” He also broadcast the symphony nationally, and took it to Carnegie Hall. Both in New York and Philadelphia, the young composer was repeatedly called to the stage. Far more remarkable is that “Hope in the Night,” with its culminating three-fold groundswell, ignited an ovation midway through every performance.
Leonard Liebling of the New York American hailed Dawson’s symphony as “the most distinctive and promising American symphonic proclamation which has so far been achieved.” Its most ardent admirers included W.E.B. DuBois’s future wife, Shirley Graham, who wrote to Dawson of her “joy and pride.” As the music historian Gwynne Kuhner Brown has pointed out, the “tumultuous approbation the ‘Negro Folk Symphony’ received from critics and audiences alike set it apart—not only from contemporaneous works by African-Americans, but also from most new classical music of the period.”
After that, the “Negro Folk Symphony” disappeared from view. Stokowski returned to the work in 1963, recording it with his American Symphony. Neeme Jarvi recorded it with the Detroit Symphony 31 years later. But performances and recordings of consequence remain few and far between.
The vital question becomes: “What if?” Dawson became a leading arranger of black spirituals, an honored éminence grise. But he had hoped to write a series of symphonies. He had hoped to conduct orchestras. Antonin Dvorak, teaching in New York in 1893, famously and controversially predicted that a “great and noble school” of American classical music would arise from the “Negro melodies” he adored. His African-American assistant, Harry Burleigh, turned spirituals into concert songs with electrifying success beginning in 1913. George Gershwin, in 1935, produced an opera saturated with the influence of “Negro melodies”: “Porgy and Bess,” arguably the highest creative achievement in American classical music (and this season’s smash hit at the Metropolitan Opera). No less than Dawson’s symphony, these lonely examples—however anathema to Langston Hughes’s famous admonition—suggest that Dvorak did not overestimate the music of black Americans. Rather, he overestimated America.
To read a pertinent essay on “black classical music,” click here.