Redisovered: William Dawson © WEB Du Bois Library/Umass Amherst

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter marches, there should be a worldwide spur to perform the music of black composers. This disc, featuring a pair of African-Americans who were highly regarded in their day, was recorded last year, so its appearance is timely.

The Negro Folk Symphony by William Dawson (1899-1990) was given its premiere in 1934 by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, no less. It was hailed at the time for its “racial sensuousness” (whatever that means) and “directness of melodic speech”. Then it disappeared.

Album cover of ‘William Dawson: Negro Folk Symphony’ by ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra

As its title suggests, Dawson incorporated spirituals into the symphony, though very subtly, so that people might recognise it was “unmistakably not the work of a white man”. The high point is the plaintive slow movement, in which Dawson said he pictured “the humdrum life of a people whose bodies were baked by the sun and lashed with the whip for 250 years”.

In its easy lyricism and open-air naturalness the work resembles Dvořák’s New World symphony, itself based on American folk material. If audiences today had a chance to hear Dawson’s symphony in the concert hall, they would surely respond to it in much the same way.

Two works by Ulysses Kay (1917-1995) — “Fantasy Variations” and “Umbrian Scene” — complete the disc. Kay’s music sounds more modern, conjuring spare and atmospheric landscapes that glint with impressionist light. Arthur Fagen and the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra give performances good enough to make one want to explore further.


William Dawson: Negro Folk Symphony’ is released by Naxos

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