Composed: 1934, rev. 1952
Length: c. 35 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (adawura [Ghanaian bell], African clave, bass drum, chimes, cymbals, gong, snare drum, tenor drum, xylophone), harp, and strings
About this Piece
“I’ve not tried to imitate Beethoven or Brahms, Franck or Ravel—but to be just myself, a Negro,” William Dawson remarked in a 1932 interview. “To me, the finest compliment that could be paid my symphony when it has its premiere is that it unmistakably is not the work of a white man. I want the audience to say: ‘Only a Negro could have written that.’”
Two years later, Leopold Stokowski led the New York Philharmonic in the premiere of Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony. Critics and audiences alike hailed it as a masterpiece. Given this overwhelmingly positive reception, Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony, which at the time he thought of as the first of several future symphonies, should have been heard “again and yet again.” But it was not. Despite Stokowski’s advocacy and the stellar reviews, within a few years both the music and its composer had faded into relative obscurity. Dawson never composed another symphony, although he did continue writing and arranging music—primarily spirituals, which he preferred to call “Negro folk songs”—for the rest of his long career.
Dawson wrote that his symphony was “symbolic of the link uniting Africa and her rich heritage with her descendants in America,” and gave each of its three movements a descriptive title. Dawson explained in his own program note: “The themes are taken from what are popularly known as Negro Spirituals. In this composition, the composer has employed three themes taken from typical melodies over which he has brooded since childhood, having learned them at his mother’s knee.” Musicologist Gwynne Kuhner Brown observes, “The themes are handled with such virtuosic flexibility of rhythm and timbre that each movement seems to evolve organically,” creating a “persuasive musical bridge between the ‘Negro Folk’ and the ‘Symphony.’”
In “The Bond of Africa,” Dawson opens with a horn solo. The dialogue between the horn and the orchestra recalls the call-and-response format of most spirituals. The horn solo repeats, usually in abbreviated form, a number of times throughout this movement, and serves as a musical “bond” holding the work together. The central slow movement, “Hope in the Night,” also features a unifying solo. Here an English horn sounds Dawson’s own spiritual-inspired melody, which he described as an “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.” Underneath the plaintive tune, the orchestra provides a dirge-like accompaniment that builds to an ominous repetition of the solo for tutti orchestra. This episode is offset by an abrupt change of mood, and we hear a lighthearted, up-tempo reworking of the original tune (the “hope” of the movement’s title). These two contrasting interludes alternate throughout the rest of the movement. Toward the end, Dawson reworks the harmony, which has been grounded in minor keys up to this point, and tiptoes towards major tonalities without fully embracing them. Musically, this device works as a powerful metaphor for the importance and elusive nature of hope to sustain people through traumatic circumstances.
The closing section, “Oh, Le’ Me Shine, Shine Like a Morning Star!” imagines a world in which the hopes of the previous movement are fully realized. Dawson creates this musical utopia through rhythm. The central melody showcases accented off-beat exclamations from various solo instruments and sections throughout, as the rhythms layer increasingly complex parts over one another. Dawson revised this movement in the early 1950s after he encountered the intricate polyrhythms of West African music during a trip to Africa. The interlocking parts and the sounds of African percussion instruments captured Dawson’s ear; when he returned to America, he added these elements. Eventually, all these rhythmic strands come together in a final buoyant exclamation from the orchestra.
© Elizabeth Schwartz