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William Dawson ran away from home at the age of 13 to
study at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama.
Founded in 1881 by Booker T. Washington to provide
practical training for African Americans, the Institute
eventually broadened its focus to become an accredited,
degree-granting institution. Dawson left there in 1921 to
pursue further musical studies in Kansas City and at the
American Conservatory in Chicago, but he returned to
Tuskegee in 1931 to establish and lead its music
department – a move that changed both his focus and his
ultimate legacy. He spent approximately three years
composing the
Negro Folk Symphony,
completing it in
1934 after winning two consecutive Wanamaker
Foundation Awards in 1930 and 1931. Leopold Stokowski
premiered the work with The Philadelphia Orchestra on
14 November 1934, following up with additional
performances on the 16th and 17th and again on the 20th
at Carnegie Hall (the February 16th performance was
broadcast to a national audience over the CBS radio
Initially, the work was greeted with great enthusiasm.
One critic observed, “It is no wonder Stokowski put his
Negro Symphony
[sic] last on the program, and no
wonder the audience heralded the end of each movement
with spontaneous applause and stood to cheer the young
composer.” Interest (and performances) soon waned,
however, but Dawson did not lose faith in the
He revised it in 1952, following a trip to seven countries in
West Africa, trying to, in his words, “[infuse] it with a
rhythmic foundation strongly inspired by African
influences.” Shawnee Press published this revision in
1963 and Stokowski recorded it with the Symphony of the
Air (the former NBC Symphony Orchestra) the following
year. This is its third recording.
In a detailed study of the
Negro Folk Symphony
published in the
Black Music Research Journal,
musicologist John Andrew Johnson describes the work as
“masterful on many levels. Each of its three movements,
while cast in a traditional form, is ultimately not controlled
William Levi Dawson
Negro Folk Symphony
Ulysses Simpson Kay
Fantasy Variations • Umbrian Scene
by these predetermined structures; rather, a continuous
process of variation and development shapes its course.”
Dawson applies his own highly individual touches in a
work that is both structured and freely programmatic. At
the outset of the first movement,
The Bond of Africa,
introduces a recurring motif – a sort of
idée fixe
– that he
labeled the “missing link” to represent “the link [that] was
taken out of a human chain when the first African was
taken from the shores of his native land and sent to
slavery.” Solo horn announces the brief pentatonic idea
that is soon repeated on English horn. After this slow
introduction, Dawson begins the sonata-form movement
with a principal theme – also introduced on horn – that is
brief in duration but rife with possibilities for rhythmic
development. The secondary theme, introduced on oboe,
is based on an authentic spiritual,
Oh, My Littl’ Soul
Gwine-a Shine.
(It is worth noting that although Dawson
uses several authentic melodies in the symphony, they
are not well-known tunes and the composer uses them
only in an excerpted, fragmentary way. No one walks
away from the work humming
Deep River
Swing Low,
Sweet Chariot.)
The beginning of the development
section is marked by a return of the somber “missing link”
motif, which returns yet again before the recapitulation.
Also in this movement, initially near the end of the
exposition, Dawson adds rhythmic references to the Juba
dance brought by slaves from the Kingdom of Kongo to
plantations in South Carolina.
The second movement, entitled
Hope in the Night,
begins with three gong strokes intended by Dawson to
represent the Trinity “that guides the destiny of man.”
Roughly in A–B–A form, with the A section marked
and the B section a much quicker
thus fulfils the roles of both a slow movement and a
in a traditional four-movement symphonic
structure. The A theme, introduced on English horn, is a
variant of the “missing link” motif (with rising rather than
descending intervals), which Dawson meant to suggest
“the monotonous life of the people who were held in
bondage for 250 years.” He intended the
theme (introduced by two oboes) to symbolize “the merry
play of children yet unaware of the hopelessness
beclouding their future.” But the playful theme is
interrupted by a return of the ominous “missing link” motif
and a brief reprise of the opening idea (separated by a
remarkable transition orchestrated for string quartet and
solo woodwinds). When the A section finally returns, it is
with full orchestra and a heavy tread marked by timpani
and chimes. The “missing link” motif makes yet another
appearance, and the movement closes with gloomy string
sustains growing from
back again over a fatalistic drumbeat.
The concluding movement – again in sonata form –
takes its title from the first of two spiritual tunes that make
up its themes:
O, Le’ Me Shine, Shine Like a Morning
Begun on oboe and soon taken up by other
woodwinds, it is characterized by its long-held opening
pitch, which Dawson uses to create tension by adding a
crescendo. The second theme is also based on a
Hallelujah, Lord, I Been Down Into the Sea,
again begun by oboe and then repeated on clarinet. The
“missing link” motif is absent from this movement,
although it bears a slight similarity to the first four notes of
O, Le’ Me Shine,
suggesting the latter may have inspired
it. The Juba rhythms return in the development section,
and the piece concludes with a magnificent coda featuring
prominent timpani and syncopation.
The premiere of the symphony was followed by
performances in Birmingham, Alabama, but after 1936 the
work simply fell off the radar – partly because there was
only one full score and set of parts – until Stokowski’s
recording. For Dawson, it became a road not travelled
since he spent the rest of his career focusing mostly on
music education, choral performance and arranging.
Ulysses Kay was also a music educator, teaching at
several universities, including a 20-year career at the
Herbert H. Lehman College of the City University of New
York. As a composer, he was more prolific than Dawson,
leaving behind approximately 140 works for orchestra,
chorus, chamber ensembles, piano, voice, organ and
band; he also wrote five operas as well as scores for film
and television. While Kay was studying at the University
of Arizona, William Grant Still encouraged him to become
a composer, and the aspiring musician went on to study
with Bernard Rogers, Howard Hanson and Paul
Conductor Arthur Bennett Lipkin commissioned Kay’s
Fantasy Variations
for the Portland (Maine) Symphony
Orchestra, which premiered the work on 19 November
1963. It might also be called
Variations in Search of a
since the actual theme does not appear until the
end, after an introduction and 13 variations. About the
work, the composer wrote:
“Over the years musical ideas or materials occur
to a composer as he works along from day to
day. Most often these ideas are fragmentary
motives, distinctive rhythms, or merely
relationships between notes. In themselves the
import of these ideas is negligible, but they are
important for the composer, for they are the raw
material out of which a composition grows.
Just such an experience happened to me,
beginning in 1958, with the materials used in my
Fantasy Variations.
The opening horn motive
was jotted down then in my sketchbook, and
other related ideas came to me from time to time.
Though I had no idea what kind of piece these
ideas might make, they stayed on my mind until
Mr. Lipkin commissioned an orchestral piece
from me. Then their purpose became clear, and I
wrote the work between March and July of 1963.”
The piece opens with a four-note cell in Phrygian mode
announced by solo horn. Although this cell is not the
theme, it is an important thematic element throughout the
work. It appears – sometimes transposed and
rhythmically or melodically modified (including retrograde)
– in all variations except
5, 6
It is not always
apparent to the ear, but it is a significant structural device
that helps unify the work.
Kay’s melodic lines move freely between diatonicism
and chromaticism, and his harmonies make judicious,
expressive use of dissonance – including the intermittent
appearance of tone clusters (as in
Variation 7).
variations flow together without breaks, and can be
distinguished one from the other as much by the textures
and orchestral colors Kay deploys as by their melodic or
harmonic content. When the theme finally arrives, first on
brass and later on strings, the first seven notes
incorporate the four-note cell, reasserting its importance
as the
of the entire work.
Also in 1963, Edward Benjamin commissioned Kay to
compose a piece for the New Orleans Philharmonic
Symphony. Several years earlier, the New Orleans
industrialist and philanthropist had established the
Edward Benjamin Award for Restful Music for
composition students at the Eastman School of Music,
encouraging them to write pieces that conformed to his
personal idea of musical beauty. The commissioning
series was later expanded to include The Philadelphia
Orchestra and other ensembles. Kay described the
invitation as “a joy and a challenge – a challenge because
the piece wanted was to be of symphonic proportions, ten
to twelve minutes in length, and quiet or restful in mood.”
Searching for ideas for the piece, Kay recalled the time he
spent in Italy as winner of the 1949 Prix de Rome (his
second time to win the coveted prize).
Listeners looking for Italian musical tropes in
will be disappointed. The piece is, in fact, highly
Germanic in tone. From the sparse opening that suggests
a Schönbergian tone row (clarinet doubled by muted solo
viola) to the intimations of Webernian Klangfarbenmelodie,
the work is rife with lean melodic lines played in
counterpoint with one another. There is very little in the
way of chordal structure until the climax (about two-thirds
of the way through), which is marked by a somber chorale
on muted brass. There are numerous tone clusters (as in
Fantasy Variations),
and the piece ends as mysteriously
as it began, with a return of the clarinet/viola duet
(although this time the strings are
and, ultimately, the
solemn stroke of a gong.
Frank K. DeWald
“I remembered the wonder and magic I had felt
while I attended the Festival of Sacred Music
near Perugia … in the fall of 1950. I recalled the
antiphonal instrumental music, the glorious
choral singing there in the old chapels of Umbria,
an ancient district of Italy, comprised of the
provinces of Perugia and Terni. I thought of my
visits to the historic towns of Arezzo, Assisi and
Narni – of the rugged hills and beautiful valleys of
the terrain. And [thus] came the inspiration for
writing my
Umbrian Scene,
as an evocation of
the wonderful time I spent in that part of Italy.”
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