Tuesday, September 25, 2007

William Levi Dawson, African American Composer Born Sept. 26, 1899

[The Spirituals of William L. Dawson; The St. Olaf Choir; Anton Armstron, conductor; Marvis Martin, soprano; St. Olaf Records 2159 (1997)]

September 26 is the anniversary of the birth of a towering figure in African American choral music, William Levi Dawson, a composer, professor and choir director. He was born on September 26, 1899 in Anniston, Alabama. Dominique-René de Lerma, Professor of Music at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin has been writing about Black classical music for four decades. He has made his research entry on William Levi Dawson available to this Website:

He was born in Anniston Alabama and ran away from home at age 13 to enter Tuskegee Institute (at this time youngsters wishing a full pre-college education could only secure this on a college campus). While there he studied with Frank L. Drye and Alice Carter Simmons, played in the schools’ instrumental ensembles, serve as music librarian, and toured for five years with the Institute Singers. His initial activity as composer began when he was 16.

Dawson pursued additional music studies upon graduation from Tuskegee Institute, and held various positions in music as well, Prof. De Lerma tells us:

In 1921, when graduated from Tuskegee, he spent a year at Washburn College in Topeka Kansas and directed the music program at the Topeka Vocational College. He was engaged that summer as tenor and trombonist with the Redpath Chautauqua. Following this he enrolled at the Horner Institute of Fine Arts in Kansas City Missouri, where, in 1925, he won his B.M. degree, but was not allowed on stage to receive his diploma.

The research entry details Dawson's Master's Degree in Music, his postgraduate study and subsequent private study:

From 1922 to 1926 he taught at Lincoln High School in Kansas City, Kansas. From here he went to the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago (M.M., 1927), performing as first trombonist with the Civic Orchestra (1926-1930). After graduating, he studied with Carl Busch and Regina G. Hall. Additional work was undertaken at the Eastman School of Music. He was also a private student of Adolf Weidig, Horvard Otterstrom, and Felix Borowski.

William Levi Dawson returned to Tuskegee Institute to teach in 1931, and ran the Music Department for 25 years. Prof. De Lerma writes:

He was virtually the entire music faculty at Tuskegee from 1931 to 1956.

Wikipedia Encyclopedia notes Dawson brought renown to the Tuskegee Institute Choir:

He also developed the choir into an internationally known ensemble. Dawson directed the Tuskegee Institute Choir which was invited to sing at New York City's Radio Music Hall in 1932 for a week of six daily performances.

We learn from Dominique-René de Lerma that Dawson seemed to be frustrated on occasion, and submitted his resignation repeatedly before it was accepted:

Dawson appeared at times to be disgruntled and, following his annual resignations from Tuskegee, was allowed his freedom in that last year. His tours as choral conductor started in 1956, when the State Department sent him to Spain.

Three honorary doctorates and two Wanamaker awards were among the many honors received by William Levi Dawson, according to the research entry.

Dawson's Negro Folk Symphony (28:26) was recorded by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Neeme Järvi, Conductor, on Chandos 9226 (1993). Michael Fleming's liner notes follow the work from its origins in Chicago to its premiere in Philadelphia and to the comments of a music critic for a New York newspaper:

Dawson began work on the Negro Folk Symphony while in Chicago. On tour with the Tuskegee choir in New York he showed the manuscript to the conductor Leopold Stokowski, who made suggestions for its expansion. In this form, comprising three movements, it was first performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1934. The critic for the New York World Telegram was at the premiere and he praised the symphony's 'imagination, warmth, drama---[and] sumptuous orchestration'. In its overall shape, and especially in its orchestration, the symphony falls into the late-Romantic tradition.

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra's recording of the Negro Folk Symphony has been reissued on Chandos 9909 (2001). The disc also includes three works by Duke Ellington. The three movements of the symphony are entitled: The Bond of Africa, Hope in the Night and O, le' me shine, shine like a Morning Star! Michael Fleming explains that Dawson revised the work after visiting Africa. He also provides some of the composer's remarks:

After a trip to West Africa in 1952, however, the composer revised it to embody authentic African rhythmic patterns, and it was in this form that Stokowski recorded it, and it is most frequently played today.

The symphony can be appreciated purely as a musical work, without any knowledge of the melodies or feelings that form its background. There are strong programmatic elements in the piece, however, as the composer's own remarks, written for the world premiere, make clear:

'This Symphony is based entirely on Negro folk-music. The themes are taken
from what are popularly known as Negro spirituals, and the practised ear will recognize the recurrence of characteristic themes throughout the composition.'

Leopold Stokowski conducted the first performance of Dawson's Negro Folk Symphony in 1934. He also recorded the work for Decca Records in 1961. The historic LP recording has since been reissued on CD by Deutsche Grammophon as DG 477 6502 (2007). Alan Newcombe says in the liner notes that the work was important to the evolution of the American symphony:

His Negro Folk Symphony was first performed by Leopold Stokowski with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1934. After making a study of indigenous African music, in 1952 Dawson revised his work to give it a more "African" rhythmic underpinning. While recalling the idiom of Dvorak's "New World" Symphony and the cyclic principles of the César Franck school, not to mention Bruckner's Fourth at the opening of the last movement, the work's individuality of texture and rhythmic energy make it a significant, albeit largely unacknowledged, contribution to the development of the American symphony.

Dawson's spirituals have been widely sung by choral groups for several generations. The extensive Works list below includes recordings on 78 rpm record, LP record and CD. Among the CDs is Ain' a that good news! It is performed by Kathleen Battle, soprano, and Christopher Parkening, guitar, on EMI Classics 47196 (1990). William Levi Dawson died in Montgomery, Alabama on May 5, 1990. Prof. De Lerma notes:

His papers are on deposit in the Robert W. Woodruff Library at Emory University.

Dr. Dominique-René de Lerma has compiled a Works List and a Bibliography containing hundreds of carefully documented entries on compositions, recordings and publications.

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Folk+Symphony" rel="tag">Folk Symphony
African+American" rel="tag">African American
Black+Composer" rel="tag">Black Composer
classical+music" rel="tag">classical music
Negro+Folk" rel="tag">Negro Folk

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