Classical Album of the Week: Dawson's Negro Folk Symphony, The Birth of the American Symphonic Canon

Aug 24, 2020

August 24, 2020. Fire up the time machine and let’s go back to November 1934. It was a troubling time. Americans were enduring the depths of the Great Depression and Winston Churchill’s chilling observations about the “rapidly darkening European scene” were foretelling the WWII horrors to come. Yet, even against this worrisome economic and sociopolitical backdrop—artistically—New York City was still alive.

On November 21st, A 17-year-old Ella Fitzgerald made her Apollo Theater debut. Just one day earlier, and 70 blocks away, the Negro Folk Symphony of 35-year-old composer William Dawson was premiered at Carnegie Hall by The Philadelphia Orchestra and conductor Leopold Stokowski.

Stokowski and Dawson had some history. Dawson had begun composing the piece at least 4 or 5 years earlier while still living in Chicago, where he’d been studying at the American Conservatory of Music and playing in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago as a trombonist in the late '20s.

But, by 1930, Dawson had accepted a position at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, heading its School of Music, and in that capacity he led Tuskegee’s renowned 100-voice choir on a tour to New York in the early '30s. While in New York, he met with Stokowski who took a look at the score and suggested some expansions. These revisions led to a version of the work that Stokowski then premiered in 1934 to great acclaim.

Critics from the New York World Telegram and The New York Times praised its warmth and its orchestration. It was heralded as an important milestone in the establishment of an American symphonic canon. No small feat.

Such was its success that night that Dawson, who up to this point had centered his career on choral music, reckoned he would dive into more orchestral composing. It didn’t happen. The Negro Folk Symphony is the only one he wrote. The piece embodied all the promise that would merit a busy schedule of performances and recordings over the coming years and decades. And for a long time, they didn’t come.

It wasn’t until about 30 years later that it was first recorded, by Stokowski and the American Symphony Orchestra. How and why do these droughts happen? After all, back in 1934, CBS Radio broadcast one of the symphony’s Carnegie Hall performances to what must have been thousands of listeners, if not far more.

Many Americans would have heard and come to know that piece as a result and yet, it experienced this long journey toward wider circulation. Vanderbilt University’s Associate Professor of Musicology Doug Shadle, a noted Florence Price scholar, explains that the classical canon has been born of and sustained by a “conscious selection performed by individuals in positions of power.” This power has been overwhelming held by white leaders who, for far too long, have excluded Black composers from the canon.

Dawson continued to nurture his symphony, even two decades after its premiere. During a trip to West Africa in the 1950s, he incorporated African rhythms into the piece, complementing its Negro spiritual foundations. It is this 1950s revised version of the symphony that can be heard in the 1963 Decca release and in this performance we hear in our Classical Album of the Week from the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and conductor Arthur Fagen.