Friday, September 26, 2008

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

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

William Levi Dawson (1899-1990) was an African American composer, professor and choral director. Dr. Dominique-René de Lerma, Professor of Music at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin has been writing about Black classical music for four decades: “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, served as music librarian, and toured for five years with the Institute Singers. His initial activity as composer began when he was 16.” “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.”

“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. Prof. De Lerma writes: “He was virtually the entire music faculty at Tuskegee from 1931 to 1956.” “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.”

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.” Leopold Stokowski recorded the work for Decca Records in 1961. The LP 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. William Levi Dawson died in Montgomery, Alabama on May 5, 1990. His spirituals have been widely sung by choral groups for several generations.

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