The final piece on our Masterworks 3: American Portraits program is William Levi Dawson’s symphonic masterpiece, Negro Folk Symphony. Dawson’s first symphony, this emotionally charged and powerful work was premiered in 1934 by Leopold Stokowski and the New York Philharmonic. Negro Folk Symphony received an overwhelmingly positive response: Stokowski conducted four performances in a row (one of which was nationally broadcast) and one New York critic called it “the most distinctive and promising American symphonic proclamation which has so far been achieved.” The success should have launched Dawson’s symphonic career, secured Negro Folk Symphony as a staple of American orchestral music, and led to more successful symphonies, but it didn’t.
Rather, Dawson spent his long career as an educator and choir director in addition to writing and arranging spirituals.
Like many minority composers within the European tradition of classical music, William Levi Dawson was often overlooked during his time and after his death. Today, Negro Folk Symphony is experiencing a long overdue period of rediscovery. Recent recognition of Dawson’s work includes the Philadelphia Orchestra’s recent Best Orchestral Performance Grammy nomination for their recording of Negro Folk Symphony alongside Florence Price’s Fourth Symphony (click here to check out the recording).
Born in Alabama in 1899, William Dawson was the eldest son of a former slave. He ran away from home at the age of 13 to study music full time as a pre-college student at what would become Tuskegee University, where he studied under Booker T. Washington. He paid for his own tuition with wages from his work as a music librarian and manual laborer. Dawson went on to study at several significant establishments in Chicago, eventually earning a master’s degree from the American Conservatory of Music. He became particularly well known for his choral works, but his greatest symphonic achievement was, of course, Negro Folk Symphony.
From the very beginning, Negro Folk Symphony was always meant to channel a different sound. “I’ve not tried to imitate Beethoven or Brahms, Franck or Ravel—but to be just myself, a Negro,” William Dawson said about his work. “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.”
Experience Dawson’s symphonic masterpiece, Negro Folk Symphony, live this weekend at our Masterworks 3: American Portraits performances, which also feature Copland’s Lincoln Portrait narrated by Bryan Terrell Clark and the NC premiere of Cold Mountain Suite by Jennifer Higdon, who will be in attendance at the performances and will participate in Darko’s pre-concert talk (which always take place on hour ahead of both concerts).