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Negro Folk Symphony

William Levi Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony, a major success upon its 1934 premiere, is largely based on Black spirituals, transformed much in the way—as he said—Tchaikovsky and Dvořák had transformed folk music in their symphonies.

William Levi Dawson was born in Anniston, Alabama, on September 26, 1899, and died in Montgomery, Alabama, on May 2, 1990. He began his Negro Folk Symphony while living in Chicago in the late 1920s; it was premiered in its original form by Leopold Stokowski with the Philadelphia Orchestra on November 14, 16, and 17, 1934, followed by a performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall on November 20. Dawson revised the symphony nearly three decades later after a trip to Africa; the revised version being performed in these concerts was recorded by Stokowski with the American Symphony Orchestra in 1963. On February 2, 2023, the Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin gave the first performance of the piece to use a new critical edition of the score edited by Gwynne Kuhner Brown, author of the program essay below.

The score of the Negro Folk Symphony calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, E-flat clarinet, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (4 players: xylophone, chimes, “church bell,” triangle, adawura [Ghanian bell], cymbals, gong, side drum, tenor drum, bass drum), harp, and strings. The symphony is about 35 minutes long.

In November 1934, Leopold Stokowski conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in four performances of William Levi Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony. Dawson thus became the third African American composer whose symphony was premiered by a major American orchestra within just a few years. William Grant Still had been the first: his Afro-American Symphony was premiered by the Rochester Philharmonic in 1931. The second was Florence B. Price, whose Symphony in E minor the Chicago Symphony Orchestra played in 1933. In the waning years of the “New Negro” Renaissance, these performances appeared to herald a new era of inclusiveness for white-dominated musical institutions. In fact, the new era did not materialize—of the three, only Still’s symphony escaped decades of obscurity.

Unlike Still and Price, Dawson did not compose another symphony. His singular Negro Folk Symphony is an astonishing work—bold, expressive, riveting, and memorable. Once you have heard it, you are likely to lament that it is his only one. (But you can still check out the others composed by Price and Still!)

William Dawson was born in 1899 in Anniston, Alabama. The first of seven children born to George and Eliza Dawson, he showed an early aptitude for both music and academics. His father took him out of school around age 10 to help support the family; his mother helped him run away to Tuskegee Institute before his 14th birthday. While at Tuskegee, the historically Black school founded by Booker T. Washington (who was still president when Dawson arrived), he received an outstanding general and musical education. Tuskegee also fostered in him the self-discipline, race pride, and commitment to excellence that were to be the hallmarks of his long career.

After receiving his diploma in 1921, Dawson spent his twenties excelling in a variety of musical jobs in the Midwest: church choir director, school music teacher, trombonist in both a jazz band and the Chicago Civic Orchestra. He also continued his education, becoming the first Black student to receive a bachelor’s degree from the Horner Institute of Fine Arts in Kansas City, Missouri, and earning a master’s degree in composition from the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. At least part of the motivation for Dawson’s post-Tuskegee studies was his desire to compose a symphony.

He started his “Symphony No. 1” in the late 1920s while living in Chicago and rubbing shoulders with the city’s other Black artists and musicians, including Florence Price. In 1930, the Tuskegee Institute welcomed him back to Alabama, where he served on the faculty until his resignation in 1955. Although he traveled widely for conducting and speaking engagements in the decades that followed, he and his wife Cecile maintained their home in Tuskegee until the ends of their long lives.

Under Dawson’s leadership, the Tuskegee Institute Choir quickly achieved national acclaim. In 1932 the choir spent six weeks in New York City, performing in the gala
concerts marking the opening of Radio City Music Hall. There, Dawson’s path crossed with that of Stokowski—an encounter that led to the premiere of the Negro Folk Symphony in November 1934.

Dawson’s piece received instant acclaim. At all four performances, including three at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music and one at Carnegie Hall, the audience broke with customary etiquette to applaud after the second movement. The end of the symphony earned a standing ovation every time. Black and white critics alike penned glowing reviews—a rarity for any new American composition. One of the concerts was broadcast nationwide on the radio. Mae Belle Thomas, one of the many African American listeners who sent the composer letters, wrote, “I’m so full of enthusiasm, I can’t gather my thoughts correctly. But I must thank you for the million and one Negroes who missed hearing your symphony and again for the thousands that did hear it.”

A symphony so successful at its premiere might be expected to join works by George Gershwin and Aaron Copland in U.S. orchestras’ regular rotations. Unfortunately, few performances followed. Lacking a consistent champion to promote it, and with only two conductor’s scores and one set of orchestral parts to go around, Dawson’s symphonic masterpiece faded quickly from view.

In the years that followed, Dawson dedicated the majority of his compositional energy to choral arrangements of spirituals such as “Ain’-a That Good News,” “Ev’ry Time I Hear the Spirit,” and “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” Dawson’s spirituals are sung to this day by choirs around the world. Although it is regrettable that he was not a more prolific symphonist, he left a profound legacy through his choral music. Committed to his students at Tuskegee and to lifting up African American folk music, Dawson chose not to spend the years of his prime dealing with the racist obstacles of the prestigious orchestral music world.

Nonetheless, the Negro Folk Symphony stayed on his mind. In 1952-53 Dawson spent several weeks touring West Africa, realizing a lifelong dream. The music he heard and recorded there inspired him, upon returning to the United States, to revise his symphony significantly. Improving and expanding what had already been a fully successful piece, it is this revised version that is heard today and can be found on professional recordings. In the current Black Lives Matter era, the Negro Folk Symphony is increasingly being performed, as mainstream orchestras awaken to the significance of this and other compositions by Black composers past and present.

The title of the Negro Folk Symphony merits discussion. The word “Negro,” uncomfortable to many today, was for Dawson and others of his generation a term of pride and respect. Although mainstream preferences had shifted by the time of his passing in 1990, Dawson remained committed to the old word. For him, “Black” was a color, too limited to encompass his heritage. Throughout his life, in his teaching and his music, Dawson extolled the culture and history of his race.

Then there is the second word of the symphony’s title, “folk.” Dawson was certainly not the first to bring orally transmitted folk songs into a symphony composed for the concert hall. In interviews, he often noted that Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Johannes Brahms, and other canonic composers had also drawn inspiration from their nations’ folk music. Most significant of Dawson’s precursors was Antonín Dvořák, who in 1893 had astonished the elite musical establishment in the U.S. with his declaration, “I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called Negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.” Dvořák’s beloved Symphony No. 9, From the New World, showcases the inspiration he himself took from African American folk music. Listeners familiar with Dvořák’s symphony will hear Dawson’s homage to it in the Negro Folk Symphony. Like Still and Price, Dawson was greatly encouraged by Dvořák’s words and example.

The use that the Negro Folk Symphony makes of folk music is uniquely Dawson’s. In his program notes from 1934, he alerts the listener to his use of three spirituals, known to him since childhood. These are conspicuously not among the genre’s most familiar songs: “Oh, My Little Soul Gwine Shine Like a Star” (also known as “Dig My Grave”), “O Le’ Me Shine,” and “Hallelujah, Lord, I Been Down into the Sea.” Dawson deftly weaves each tune into the piece’s form and texture, allowing no contrast between “folk” and “symphony.”

The arrival of the first spiritual identified by Dawson does not come until several minutes into the piece. The four-note motive with which the Negro Folk Symphony begins, however, may itself come from a better-known spiritual that Dawson chose not to point out, “Go Down, Moses.” Rather than the beginning of that song’s verse or chorus, the motive resembles the melody at the words “Egypt land”:

Go down, Moses
‘Way down in Egypt land,
Tell ole Pharaoh,
To let my people go.

In 1963 Dawson wrote, “a link was taken out of a human chain when the first African was taken from the shores of his native land and sent to slavery.” The solemn motive of the Introduction, first sounded by the horn, symbolizes this “missing link.” The motive occurs repeatedly throughout the symphony, connecting its three movements. Sometimes it is prominent, either heroic or foreboding. At other times it flits past, or bubbles up in the middle of a busy passage. This recurring motive helps the Negro Folk Symphony tell its story.

The titles of the three movements provide a general sense of a narrative. After a slow and generally tragic introduction, the first movement, “The Bond of Africa” is marked by rhythmic excitement, melodies that gesture toward African American genres such as juba and ragtime, and expert use of orchestral color. The first Dawson-identified spiritual, “Oh, My Little Soul Gwine Shine Like a Star,” appears as a jaunty secondary theme, played first by a solo oboe. Although the overall mood of the movement is celebratory, there are moments when a dark cloud seems to cover the sun, as at the beginning of the developmental middle section when the “link” motive is sounded ominously by overlapping trombones, horns, trumpets, English horn, and clarinets. This first movement hints at a sense of both wonder and grief over a homeland that in 1934 Dawson had only dreamed of seeing.

“Hope in the Night,” the second movement that elicited spontaneous ovations from the symphony’s first audiences, has the most extensive program note from the composer. Dawson wrote in 1934,

This movement opens (Andante, 4/4) with three strokes from the gong, intended to suggest the Trinity, who guides forever the destiny of man. The strings, playing pizzicato, provide a monotonous background, creating the atmosphere of the humdrum life of a people whose bodies were baked by the sun and lashed with the whip for two hundred and fifty years; whose lives were proscribed before they were born. The English horn sings a melody that describes the characteristics, hopes, and longings of a Folk held in darkness. After a climax, this division is followed by one conceived in a happier mood. The children, unmindful of the heavy cadences of despair, sing and play; but even in their world of innocence, there is a little wail, a brief note of sorrow. After much development of the theme of the children, and a cry from the strings, muted brasses, and trilling woodwinds, there is a return of the previous material. This in turn is succeeded by another outburst, in which the “Leading Motive” is given out by the full orchestra. The movement closes with slow crescendos and decrescendos after each of three mysterious sounds from the gong and other percussion instruments.

Unlike many portrayals of antebellum life from this period, such as Gone with the Wind, there is no idealizing or nostalgia here. This is the only movement in the symphony that does not include or evoke any spirituals, thus denying listeners the comfort of imagining the enslaved finding solace in religion.

The third movement, “O Le’ Me Shine, Shine Like a Morning Star!,” offers rebirth. With bubbling energy, it processes the journey of the previous movements, turning its themes every which way to catch the light. The inclusion of the spiritual “Hallelujah, Lord, I Been Down into the Sea” acknowledges the despair of slavery, but also rejoices at deliverance. As a result of Dawson’s revision, the movement prominently features complex rhythms and vivid percussive colors—elements derived from African diasporic traditions. The symphony’s rhythmically explosive conclusion transforms the orchestra into an ensemble like those Dawson marveled at during his time in Africa. He ends the symphony not with the four-note “link” motive, but with a different gesture: four bold, unison notes that evoke a West African talking drum. With this jubilant shout, the Negro Folk Symphony offers a symbolic musical repair of the break in the human chain wrought by the transatlantic slave trade.

Gwynne Kuhner Brown

Scholar and pianist Gwynne Kuhner Brown is a professor of historical musicology and music theory at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. She is the author of articles and a forthcoming book on the life and work of William L. Dawson, and has also published on George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.