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The Soul of Black Classical Music

The Soul of Black Classical Music

The importance of William Dawson's Negro Folk Symphony.

Joseph Horowitz

“Negro spirituals,” predicted Alain Locke in 1925, would undergo “intimate and original development in directions already the line of advance in modernistic music. . . . An inevitable art development awaits them, as in the past it has awaited all other great folk music.” Locke’s philosophy of the New Negro aligned with the high-culture predilections W. E. B. Du Bois. Like Du Bois, Locke mistrusted the popular musical marketplace in favor of elite realms of art: symphonies, sonatas, concertos.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Langston Hughes, in his seminal 1926 essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” thought otherwise. He heard in jazz “the eternal tom-tom beating of the Negro soul.” He deplored an “urge toward whiteness” in concert-hall applications of Black music. Zora Neale Hurston, supporting Hughes, discerned a “flight from Blackness” in concert spirituals that “squeezed all of the rich Black juice out of the songs.”

This debate over whether Black classical music could convey an authentically Black sound wasn’t moral; it was essentially aesthetic—and plausible. The Black musical vernacular had already proven so fecund in ragtime and the blues that whether a Black concert song or symphony could resonate as elementally was (and remains) an understandable point of debate.

In the Black classical music repertoire belatedly being excavated today, the big find may well be William Levi Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony (1932) – effusively praised when Leopold Stokowski first performed it 1934. Referencing Antonin Dvořák’s New World Symphony, and Dvořák’s famous 1893 prediction that “Negro melodies” would foster “a great and noble school of music,” Locke declared that Dawson had here taken the “the same path” as Dvořák, only “much further down the road to native and indigenous musical expression.” Dawson’s symphony, Locke continued, was in fact “unimpeachably Negro.” Dawson himself said that his was a symphony that “only a Negro could have written.” What did he mean by that?

We know that Dawson visited Africa in the 1950s, was greatly stirred, and revised his symphony prior to its belated publishing in 1963. The work as we know it begins with a heraldic horn call, a recurrent leitmotif symbolically linking Africa and America. The three movement titles are “The Bond of Africa,” “Hope in the Night,” and “O, Le’ Me Shine, Shine Like a Mornin’ Star!” Self-evidently, Dawson here attempts the portrait of a race.

The big central movement anchors the whole. It begins with a dolorous English horn tune not cradled by strings (like the immortal English horn tune of Dvořák’s symphony) but set atop a parched pizzicato accompaniment: “a melody,” Dawson writes in a program note, “that describes the characteristics, hopes, and longings of a folk held in darkness.” A weary journey into the light ensues. Its eventual climax is punctuated by a clamor of chimes: chains of servitude. Finally, three gong strokes that prefaced the movement—“the Trinity,” says Dawson, “who guides forever the destiny of man”—are amplified by a seismic throb of chimes and timpani. At Stokowski’s first performances, Dawson’s three-fold groundswell, a singular inspiration, ignited an ovation so prolonged that the Philadelphia Orchestra had to stand midway through this first hearing of a new work.

Over the summer, at North Carolina’s enterprising Brevard Music Festival, I had occasion to curate a series of concerts based on my book Dvořák’s Prophecy and the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music. Because I interpolated spirituals into the culminating symphonic program, I discovered myself unwittingly testing the appropriation debate. The results were informative.

The two singers at hand set the highest possible bar. One was George Shirley–a legendary name. It was he who in 1961 became the first Black tenor to sing leading roles at the Metropolitan Opera. George is now 89 and still singing. The other Brevard singer, less than half George’s age, was the baritone Sidney Outlaw, whom I invited to sing three spirituals, a cappella, that were deployed in concert works by Dawson, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and Margaret Bonds. My intention had been to cite the tunes these composers adapted directly ahead of the pertinent pieces. But Sidney Outlaw’s renditions were themselves spellbindingly self-sufficient.

George Shirley offers two anecdotes and sings Roland Hayes' "Lit'l Boy" (with Joseph Horowitz, piano) at the Brevard Festival on July 14, 2022.

The significance of the once famous British composer Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) is that Du Bois anointed him the Great Black Hope of classical music–the man who could do the job. At Brevard, we heard Coleridge-Taylor’s “Keep Me from Sinkin’ Down” for violin and orchestra (1912). It’s a beautiful piece–but not as beautiful as an earlier composition it evokes: Dvořák’s Romance for violin and orchestra. It also suffered in comparison to Sidney Outlaw’s hushed, slow-motion chant of the spiritual itself. The warnings of Hughes and Hurston here come true: a product of the Royal Conservatory, Coleridge-Taylor was ultimately too genteel to fulfill the hopes of Dvořák, Du Bois, and Locke.

The Margaret Bonds piece– her biggest for orchestra–was the Montgomery Variations (1964). She here mourns the Montgomery Sunday school bombing of 1964, in which four children died. Every movement adapts “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me,”sung at our concert by Sidney Outlaw. Of the Black concert composers coming after Coleridge-Taylor, Bonds (1913-1972) is the most notably poli-stylistic; she draws on gospel and the blues. But her orchestral writing is too bland, too conventional, to stand up to a sorrow song born in back-breaking toil and de-humanizing oppression.

Our concert closed with the Dawson symphony. Here Sidney Outlaw sang “Oh My Little Soul Gwine Shine,” one of several spirituals Dawson embeds. But Dawson’s symphony did not register as a “flight from Blackness.” It gripped and held. It is worth pondering why.

At Brevard, George Shirley heard the Dawson symphony in live performance for the first time.  He remarked, admiringly, that the work surprised him at every turn—but that every surprise instantly seemed “right.” This observation, I think, helps us understand what registers as authentic, or “unimpeachably Negro,” about this Black symphony: it feels spontaneous, even improvisational–hallmarks of the Black popular genres we well know. And this is mainly a function of Dawson’s ingenious handling of musical structure. Even though the first movement is a sonata form, its components are so cleverly integrated that the seams never show. It builds cunningly to a central eruption—an outburst of strutting syncopations whose lightning physicality is irresistible. The texture of all three movements prickles and percolates with interior detail. The complex writing for percussion must owe something to the polyphonic drumming Dawson heard in Africa.

In short, Dawson retains proximity to the vernacular. He seizes the humor, pathos, and tragedy of the sorrow songs with an oracular vehemence. His symphony exudes a vernacular energy driven by an exigent cause.

How important is the Negro Folk Symphony? A conductor of my acquaintance, who has performed it, calls it the most formidable American symphony subsequent to the symphonies of Charles Ives. That is: Dawson in his opinion eclipses the long canonized Third Symphonies of Aaron Copland and Roy Harris. The recording to hear is Stokowski’s from 1963, and there is also a performance by the late Michael Morgan with a distinguished all-Black ensemble, the Gateways Orchestra. How I wish Gateways had programed the Dawson symphony for their Carnegie Hall debut last April.

The high point of the Brevard “Dvořák’s Prophecy” festival was a non-symphonic program, “George Shirley: A Life in Music.” It comprised a series of reminiscences and reflections, punctuated by recordings by Roland Hayes, Marian Anderson, and George Shirley himself.

Like the festival’s closing orchestral concert, with the Dawson symphony, this afternoon event felt instructive. I am not the only one for whom four rapt performances by Hayes, Anderson, and Shirley somehow eclipsed all the other music heard that week. That all four were delivered by Black artists was not really surprising.

Of the sorrow songs, Du Bois unforgettably wrote:

Little of beauty has America given the world save the rude grandeur God himself stamped on her bosom; the human spirit in this new world has expressed itself in vigor and ingenuity rather than in beauty. And so by fateful chance the Negro folk-song—the rhythmic cry of the slave—stands to-day not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas. It has been neglected, it has been, and is, half despised, and above all it has been persistently mistaken and misunderstood; but notwithstanding, it still remains as the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.
Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope—a faith in the ultimate justice of things. The minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence. . . . Sometimes it is faith in life, sometimes a faith in death, sometimes assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond. But whichever it is, [T]the meaning is always clear: that sometime, some- where, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins. Is such a hope justified? Do the Sorrow Songs sing true?

Joseph Horowitz’s latest book is Dvořák’s Prophecy and the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music (2021). It was published in tandem with a film about the Dawson symphony, The Souls of Black Folk, available as a Naxos DVD. His ongoing NPR documentary series More than Music includes “Lost and Found: America’s Black Classical Music.” Brevard’s “Dvořák’s Prophecy” festival coincided with a week-long seminar on the future of the American orchestra in which Black classical music was a central concern; the seminar is the topic of an extensive essay by Douglas McLennan in the current online issue of The American Scholar.

Image: "The Migration of the Negro, Panel 1," Jacob Lawrence, 1941. (WikiArt)

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