George Shirley’s spellbinding performance of Roland Hayes’ “Lit’l Boy,” filmed last July at the Brevard Music Festival, was a highlight of twin Brevard initiatives: a week-long “Dvorak’s Prophecy” festival inspired by my recent book Dvorak’s Prophecy and the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music, and the “Brevard Project,” a think-tank/seminar pondering the fate of the American orchestra. The book, the festival, and the Project all pursue a common theme: the quest for a “usable past” in American classical music: American roots.
This was the topic Dvorak seized when in 1893 he prophesied that “Negro melodies” would foster a “great and noble school” of American classical music. The same prophecy was uttered, even more memorably, by W. E. B. Du Bois a decade later when he called the sorrow songs of Black Americans “the greatest gift of the Negro people.” And indeed the sorrow songs fostered a multitude of popular musical genres known the world over.
But they were mainly squandered by America’s concert composers — the story I tell in my book. The magnitude of this omission was dramatized at Brevard by performances, three days running, by George Shirley: now 89 years old, and 51 years ago the first African-American tenor to sing leading roles at the Metropolitan Opera. Another magnificent African-American vocalist, the baritone Sidney Outlaw, contributed three additional a cappella spirituals that, like George’s performances, seemed to eclipse all the other music-making that week. Himself a product of Brevard, North Carolina — in the Appalachians — Sidney Outlaw came to music through family and church: roots.
This week, The American Purpose — an invaluable centrist journal of government, politics, and the arts — published my further ruminations on the Brevard experience. And The American Scholar –– also a publication with due regard for the fate of the American arts — has concurrentlly published a related piece on Brevard by Douglas McLennan, editor/founder of ArtsJournal. We will be following up with a podcast– including George Shirley — in the coming weeks.
As I write in my American Purpose piece: because I interpolated spirituals into the festival’s culminating symphonic program, I discovered myself unwittingly testing an inescapable appropriation debate: does classical music “sanitize” the Black vernacular. The results were highly informative.
My article in The American Purpose follows:
THE SOUL OF BLACK CLASSICAL MUSIC
“Negro spirituals,” predicted Alain Locke in 1925, would undergo “intimate and original development in directions already the line of advance in modernistic music.… An inevitable art development awaits them, as in the past it has awaited all other great folk music.” Locke’s philosophy of the New Negro aligned with the high-culture predilections W. E. B. Du Bois. Like Du Bois, Locke mistrusted the popular musical marketplace in favor of elite realms of art: symphonies, sonatas, concertos.
Langston Hughes, in his seminal 1926 essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” thought otherwise. He heard in jazz “the eternal tom-tom beating of the Negro soul.” He deplored an “urge toward whiteness” in concert-hall applications of Black music. Zora Neale Hurston, supporting Hughes, discerned a “flight from Blackness” in concert spirituals that “squeezed all of the rich Black juice out of the songs.”
This debate over whether Black classical music could convey an authentically Black sound wasn’t moral; it was essentially aesthetic—and plausible. The Black musical vernacular had already proven so fecund in ragtime and the blues that whether a Black concert song or symphony could resonate as elementally was (and remains) an understandable point of debate.
In the Black classical music repertoire belatedly being excavated today, the big find may well be William Levi Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony (1932) – effusively praised when Leopold Stokowski first performed it 1934. Referencing Antonin Dvorak’s New World Symphony, and Dvorak’s famous 1893 prediction that “Negro melodies” would foster “a great and noble school of music,” Locke declared that Dawson had here taken the “the same path” as Dvorak, only “much further down the road to native and indigenous musical expression.” Dawson’s symphony, Locke continued, was in fact “unimpeachably Negro.” Dawson himself said that his was a symphony that “only a Negro could have written.” What did he mean by that?
We know that Dawson visited Africa in the 1950s, was greatly stirred, and revised his symphony prior to its belated publication in 1963. The work as we know it begins with a heraldic horn call, a recurrent leitmotif symbolically linking Africa and America. The three movement titles are “The Bond of Africa,” “Hope in the Night,” and “O, Le’ Me Shine, Shine Like a Mornin’ Star!” Self-evidently, Dawson here attempts the portrait of a race.
The big central movement anchors the whole. It begins with a dolorous English horn tune not cradled by strings (like the immortal English horn tune of Dvorak’s symphony), but 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 and timpani. At Stokowski’s first performances, Dawson’s three-fold groundswell, a singular inspiration, ignited an ovation so prolonged that the Philadelphia Orchestra had to stand midway through this first hearing of a new work.
Over the summer, at North Carolina’s enterprising Brevard Music Festival, I had occasion to curate a series of concerts based on my book Dvorak’s Prophecy and the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music. Because I interpolated spirituals into the culminating symphonic program, I discovered myself unwittingly testing the appropriation debate. The results were informative.
The two singers at hand set the highest possible bar. One was George Shirley–a legendary name. It was he who in 1961 became the first Black tenor to sing leading roles at the Metropolitan Opera. George is now 89 and still singing. The other Brevard singer, less than half George’s age, was the baritone Sidney Outlaw, whom I invited to sing three spirituals, a cappella, that were deployed in concert works by Dawson, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and Margaret Bonds. My intention had been to cite the tunes these composers adapted directly ahead of the pertinent pieces. But Sidney Outlaw’s renditions were themselves spellbindingly self-sufficient.
The significance of the once famous British composer Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) is that Du Bois anointed him the Great Black Hope of classical music – the man who could do the job. At Brevard, we heard Coleridge-Taylor’s “Keep Me from Sinkin’ Down” for violin and orchestra (1912). It’s a beautiful piece – but not as beautiful as an earlier composition it evokes: Dvorak’s Romance for violin and orchestra. It also suffered in comparison to Sidney Outlaw’s hushed, slow-motion chant of the spiritual itself. The warnings of Hughes and Hurston here come true: a product of the Royal Conservatory, Coleridge-Taylor was ultimately too genteel to fulfill the hopes of Dvorak, Du Bois, and Locke.
The Margaret Bonds piece – her biggest for orchestra – was the Montgomery Variations (1964). She here mourns the Montgomery Sunday school bombing of 1964, in which four children died. Every movement adapts “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me” – sung at our concert by Sidney Outlaw. Of the Black concert composers coming after Coleridge-Taylor, Bonds (1913-1972) is the most notably poli-stylistic; she draws on gospel and the blues. But her orchestral writing is too bland, too conventional, to stand up to a sorrow song born in back-breaking toil and de-humanizing oppression.
Our concert closed with the Dawson symphony. Here Sidney Outlaw sang “Oh My Little Soul Gwine Shine,” one of several spirituals Dawson embeds. But Dawson’s symphony did not register as a “flight from Blackness.” It gripped and held. It is worth pondering why.
At Brevard, George Shirley heard the Dawson symphony in live performance for the first time. He remarked, admiringly, that the work surprised him at every turn—but that every surprise instantly seemed “right.” This observation, I think, helps us understand what registers as “authentic” – “unimpeachably Negro” – about this Black symphony: it feels spontaneous, even improvisational: hallmarks of the Black popular genres we well know. And this is mainly a function of Dawson’s ingenious handling of musical structure. Even though the first movement is a sonata form, its components are so cleverly integrated that the seams never show. It builds cunningly to a central eruption—an outburst of strutting syncopations whose lightning physicality is irresistible. The texture of all three movements prickles and percolates with interior detail. The complex writing for percussion must owe something to the polyphonic drumming Dawson heard in Africa.
In short, Dawson retains proximity to the vernacular. He seizes the humor, pathos, and tragedy of the sorrow songs with an oracular vehemence. His symphony exudes a vernacular energy driven by an exigent cause.
How important is the Negro Folk Symphony? A conductor of my acquaintance, who has performed it, calls it the most formidable American symphony subsequent to the symphonies of Charles Ives. That is: Dawson in his opinion eclipses the long canonized Third Symphonies of Aaron Copland and Roy Harris. The recording to hear, sitting on YouTube, is Stokowski’s from 1963. There also exists a YouTube video of a performance by the late Michael Morgan with a distinguished all-Black ensemble: the Gateways Orchestra. How I wish Gateways had programed the Dawson symphony for their Carnegie Hall debut last April.
The high point of the Brevard “Dvorak’s Prophecy” festival was non-symphonic: “George Shirley: A Life in Music.” It comprised a series of reminiscences and reflections, punctuated by recordings by Roland Hayes, Marian Anderson, and George Shirley himself.
Like the festival’s closing orchestral concert, with the Dawson symphony, this afternoon event felt instructive. I am not the only one for whom four rapt performances by Hayes, Anderson, and Shirley somehow eclipsed all the other music heard that week. That all four were delivered by Black artists was not really surprising.
Of the sorrow songs, Du Bois unforgettably wrote:
“Little of beauty has America given the world save the rude grandeur God himself stamped on her bosom; the human spirit in this new world has expressed itself in vigor and ingenuity rather than in beauty. And so by fateful chance the Negro folk-song—the rhythmic cry of the slave—stands to-day not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas. It has been neglected, it has been, and is, half despised, and above all it has been persistently mistaken and misunderstood; but notwithstanding, it still remains as the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.
“Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope—a faith in the ultimate justice of things. The minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence..… Sometimes it is faith in life, sometimes a faith in death, sometimes assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond. But whichever it is, [T]the meaning is always clear: that sometime, some- where, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins. Is such a hope justified? Do the Sorrow Songs sing true?”
Michael Webster says
I always enjoy your writing!