Someone Finally Remembered William Dawson's 'Negro Folk Symphony' : Deceptive Cadence Broadcast nationwide in 1934 and praised by listeners and critics alike, a masterful symphony soon fell silent. A new recording hopes to help revive an American treasure.
NPR logo

Someone Finally Remembered William Dawson's 'Negro Folk Symphony'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/883011513/884039414" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Someone Finally Remembered William Dawson's 'Negro Folk Symphony'

Someone Finally Remembered William Dawson's 'Negro Folk Symphony'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/883011513/884039414" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In 1934, this piece of music brought the Carnegie Hall audience to its feet.

(SOUNDBITE OF WILLIAM DAWSON'S "NEGRO FOLK SYMPHONY")

SHAPIRO: It was a new symphony by a Black composer. But after a handful of performances, the music all but disappeared until now. NPR's Tom Huizenga has been listening to a new recording of a symphony and shares the backstory.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: The composer was William Dawson. He was 35 years old when conductor Leopold Stokowski, leading the Philadelphia Orchestra, premiered Dawson's "Negro Folk Symphony." There was even a nationwide radio broadcast. A New York critic called it the most distinctive American symphonic proclamation so far.

(SOUNDBITE OF WILLIAM DAWSON'S "NEGRO FOLK SYMPHONY")

HUIZENGA: Johnson's symphony is emotionally charged. He said he wasn't out to imitate Beethoven or Brahms but wanted those who heard it to know that it was, quote, "unmistakably not the work of a white man," unquote. Dawson found inspiration for the piece in traditional spirituals. In the third movement, he quotes "Hallelujah, Lord, I've Been Down Into The Sea."

(SOUNDBITE OF WILLIAM DAWSON'S "NEGRO FOLK SYMPHONY")

HUIZENGA: William Dawson was born in 1899 in Alabama. At age 13, he ran away from home to the Tuskegee Institute. He studied music, wrote his first pieces and graduated in 1921. 10 years later, after a master's degree, he returned to the historically Black institution to launch its music school and make its choir famous, singing his arrangements of spirituals. But the heart of Dawson's symphony does not draw from a spiritual. It's the central movement titled "Hope In The Night."

(SOUNDBITE OF WILLIAM DAWSON'S "NEGRO FOLK SYMPHONY")

HUIZENGA: Dawson gives the mournful theme to the English horn. He described it as, quote, "the humdrum life of a people whose bodies were baked by the sun and lashed with the whip," unquote. Later, he lets the entire orchestra take it over.

(SOUNDBITE OF WILLIAM DAWSON'S "NEGRO FOLK SYMPHONY")

HUIZENGA: William Dawson never wrote another symphony. Stokowski recorded the "Negro Folk Symphony" in 1963, and the Detroit Symphony recorded it nearly 30 years later. But since then, nothing. The problem, in part, is the score. Dawson revised it after visiting Africa, and some say it needs a careful editing and republication. This new recording has plenty of elegance and fire, though. Arthur Fagen deftly conducts the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony and also includes two fine works by Ulysses Kay. He was another African American - slightly younger than Dawson, but more prolific.

(SOUNDBITE OF ULYSSES KAY'S "FANTASY VARIATIONS")

HUIZENGA: Kay's music also deserves to be heard more. His "Fantasy Variations" from 1963 is brilliantly orchestrated and deceptive. Instead of starting with a theme and spinning off variations, Kay does the opposite, offering his big reveal at the end.

(SOUNDBITE OF ULYSSES KAY'S "FANTASY VARIATIONS")

HUIZENGA: There are a lot of questions about diversity and what American orchestras should be performing these days. An engaging album like this offers some answers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ULYSSES KAY'S "FANTASY VARIATIONS")

SHAPIRO: The album features music by William Dawson and Ulysses Kay. Our reviewer is NPR's Tom Huizenga.

(SOUNDBITE OF ULYSSES KAY'S "FANTASY VARIATIONS")

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.