On November 20, 1934, the Negro Folk Symphony by African American composer William Levi Dawson was first performed for an audience at Carnegie Hall. The work enjoyed a resounding success and seemed destined to a bright future, but after several performances it was all but forgotten.
While the work appears on two separate recordings released in 1963 and 1992, it was not until the 2020s and a resurgence of interest in African American musical heritage that the Negro Folk Symphony captured the attention of various orchestral conductors. Roderick Cox regularly features it on his concert programs, and he will conduct its performance by the OSM on October 12 and 14.
William Levi Dawson, Ambassador of Spirituals
Born in Alabama, Dawson was the eldest of a family of seven children. His gift for music manifested itself very early, and at age 14, he entered the Tuskegee Institute, where he received both a general education and advanced musical training. In 1930, he set aside his burgeoning career as a trombonist to establish a music school in Tuskegee (Alabama) and conduct the Tuskegee Institute Choir, which subsequently achieved international renown. While prolifically composing chamber and vocal works, Dawson also devoted a substantial portion of his activities to harmonizing and arranging spirituals, greatly contributing to the expansion of this repertoire, which many present-day choirs continue to perform.
Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit arr. William L. Dawson
The Negro Folk Symphony: Affirming Cultural Identity
For African Americans living in 1934, the word “Negro” lacked the derogatory connotations it subsequently acquired. It was associated with pride and respect, and with belonging to a community. This is the context in which Dawson opted to title his sole symphony Negro Folk Symphony. His aim was that, upon hearing the work, the audience would perceive it as “unmistakably not the work of a white man.” Therefore, to strengthen its salient African American dimension, the composer wove in several spirituals, which he called folksongs—the “folk” component referring to songs transmitted orally by slaves of African origin to maintain a connection within their community. Spirituals originated in biblical texts transplanted into work songs. While retaining much of their African musical characteristics, many spirituals also contained coded messages enabling plantation slaves—likened to the Hebrews, captive in Egypt—to express feelings of revolt and hope. The words “Canaan” and “Heaven,” for example, actually signified Canada, which had abolished slavery.
Ezekiel Saw the Wheel arr. William Dawson
Behold the Star arr. William L. Dawson
Blending the Symphonic Tradition and Folk Heritage
The Negro Folk Symphony lies at the intersection between the European symphonic tradition and African American musical folk heritage. This fusion of classical and folk styles, which composers frequently employed, was illustrated at length by Dvořák, who asserted that a characteristically national piece of music must be rooted in a country’s folk heritage. During his visit to the United States from 1892 to 1895, Dvořák strongly encouraged composers to draw from distinctively African American and Indigenous melodic and rhythmic characteristics and songs, with the purpose of creating an authentic North American musical art.
Dawson set three spirituals — “Oh, My Little Soul Shine Shine Like a Star” (1st movement), “O Le’ Me Shine,” and “Hallelujah, Lord, I Been Down into the Sea” (3rd movement) — in his Symphony, whose idiom and orchestration embrace the Western European post-Romantic style. These spirituals are ably embedded in the work’s texture to the point of achieving symbiosis between folk and classical expressions. In the early 1950s, after having travelled several times to Africa, Dawson was increasingly captivated by polyrhythms and the sounds of African percussion. He proceeded to revise his work, complexifying its rhythm and fleshing out its percussion score.
The Negro Folk Symphony was conceived by its composer as “symbolic of the link uniting Africa and her rich heritage with her descendants in America.” Comprising three movements titled, “The Bond of Africa,” “Hope in the Night,” and “O, Le’ Me Shine, Shine Like a Morning Star,” this Symphony paints a vast narrative tableau imbued with the message of an uprooted people.
This compelling work of great melodic, rhythmic, and expressive richness stands as a vital contribution to the North American symphonic repertoire. We invite you to come out and enjoy it on October 12 and 14 at the Maison symphonique.
(Negro Folk Symphony à 1 h 12 min 30 s)