William L. Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony

Notes by TŌN bassist Tristen Jarvis

A Distinctly American Work
William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony is a luminous, sophisticated, and very distinctly “American” work that bridges the language of post-slavery Negro spirituals with the timbres and aesthetics of the European symphony orchestra. Already celebrated for his popular choral arrangements of these spirituals, Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony catapulted his reputation after its wildly successful world premiere at Carnegie Hall by the Philadelphia Orchestra with Leopold Stokowski. The New York World-Telegram praised the piece for its “imagination, warmth, drama – (and) sumptuous orchestration.” After visiting seven countries in West Africa to study indigenous African music in 1952, Dawson revised the Negro Folk Symphony into the version that you will hear today, which is more infused with a rhythmic foundation inspired by those African influences from his sabbatical; he wanted those who heard it to know that it was “unmistakably not the work of a white man.”

The Bond of Africa
The opening thirty seconds of the piece contain a soaring blues gesture by a solo French horn, quickly morphing into a brief declaration by the woodwinds and trombones that evokes moody, Cotton Club-era undertones of an Ellington big-band ballad fused with Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Not even a minute in, the strings interrupt with a tender, cinematic excerpt out of a Hollywood film score that launches into an opera overture-like formal structure for the remainder of the movement, alluding to classic orchestral themes such as the opening to Bizet’s Carmen and Smetana’s Bartered Bride.

Hope in the Night
In my opinion, the most rewarding part of the Negro Folk Symphony is this second movement. Lush and brightly sophisticated, imagine the opening to Stravinsky’s “Berceuse (Lullaby)” from The Firebird fused with the minor-blues language of Gershwin’s “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. Dawson described this movement 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.”

O, Le’ Me Shine, Shine Like a Morning Star!
A dazzling, high-paced finale punctuates this remarkable work in a style that draws upon mid-nineteenth century European romanticism while foreshadowing the writing styles of American composers such as Leonard Bernstein and George Walker.