What the history of Dawson’s “Negro Folk Symphony” says about American classical music

Posted on: September 18, 2019

“In 1934, Leopold Stokowski and his incomparable Philadelphia Orchestra premiered a new work by a black composer : the Negro Folk Symphony of William Levi Dawson,” writes Joseph Horowitz in Friday’s (9/13) American Scholar. When “Stokowski conducted the symphony at Carnegie Hall, a performance that was nationally broadcast and widely reviewed … the second movement ignited an ovation.… Yet the Negro Folk Symphony would soon be forgotten. Around the same time, two other notable symphonies by African Americans were prominently premiered: William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony … and Florence Price’s Symphony in E minor…. Racial prejudice, personal and institutional, obviously inhibited the potential success of a [Nathaniel] Dett, Dawson, Still, or Price. But a subtler prejudice was aesthetic…. America’s black musical mother lode predominantly flourished—wondrously—in popular musical realms. American classical music stayed Eurocentric and white…. I do not doubt that, 85 years after its premiere, the Negro Folk Symphony retains the power to drive an audience to its feet…. A decade ago, a trove of Price manuscripts was discovered outside Chicago, including two violin concertos now so widely noticed that a Price revival seems imminent. Two Dawson biographies are underway. The Negro Folk Symphony is surely next in line.”

 

Posted September 18, 2019

In photo: Composer William Levi Dawson. Photo credit: Tuskegee University Archives