Friday, September 11, 2020

Limelight: William Dawson's "Negro Folk Symphony" & Ulysses Kay's "Fantasy Variations" & "Umbrian Scene"; "A recording that shows Black Music also matters"

Negro Folk Symphony
Fantasy Variations / Umbrian Scene
ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra
Arthur Fagen

William Dawson, Ulysses Kay: Negro Folk Symphony, Fantasy Variations (Arthur Fagen)

A recording that shows Black Music also matters.

by Greg Keane on September 7, 2020

I once owned a copy of the Negro Folk Symphony by the African American William Dawson (1899-1990) conducted by Leopold Stokowski, an enthusiastic advocate of the composer. I subsequently sold it in Tokyo for a small fortune. This vibrant performance reminded me of the work’s ingenious inspiration and structure: a three-movement work composed in 1934 and re-worked in 1952 which permutates and ultimately sublimates fragments of African American spirituals into a developmental tapestry full of genuine African rhythms and syncopations – and all in a highly listenable conservative idiom.


The other African American composer featured on this CD is the much more prolific Ulysses Kay, who studied with Howard Hanson and Paul Hindemith. Although just 18 years younger than Dawson, Kay inhabits a different creative and aesthetic universe. His 1963 Fantasy Variations initially sounded like dissonant orchestration all dressed up with nowhere to go. I later discovered that the “variations” came before the theme! No wonder it sounded diffuse.

The other work (also composed in 1963) is Umbrian Scene, which stops just short of strict atonality but is heavily redolent of Webern. 

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