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  • Ian Passmore

Music that doesn't suck, No. 12: William Dawson

With the passing of every generation, there is a shamefully large amount of music that gets left behind. Take the United States, for example… Just think of all the Copland and Bernstein contemporaries whose music has all but vanished from today’s concert programs: Roy Harris, Walter Piston, Roger Sessions, William Schuman. The list goes on and on. (Recently, I was fortunate to be asked to host a Zoom webinar for the International Conductors Guild with guest Maestro Leonard Slatkin. He spoke about these lost American masterpieces, and actually has a forthcoming book on the subject.)


In my Independence Day post on the music of Morton Gould, I mentioned one of my former teachers at Indiana University: Maestro Arthur Fagen. He is the chair of the Orchestral Conducting department at IU, as well as the Music Director of the Atlanta Opera. When I was a student there, he and the IU Philharmonic and Chamber Orchestras recorded the music of David Diamond for Naxos, another sadly neglected American composer. He’s also recently recorded the Symphonettes of Morton Gould, as well as our topic for this week: William Dawson’s “Negro Folk Symphony.”


Dawson is just one of many black composers of our past, whose music is enjoying a small renaissance. Some particularly notable others are Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Florence Price, William Grant Still, and George Walker…just to name a few! Dawson’s one and only symphony draws its inspiration from spirituals, which the composer referred to as “negro folk music,” hence its title—he had endeavored to write a major symphonic work that was “unmistakably not the work of a white man.” At its 1934 premiere by the Philadelphia Orchestra and Leopold Stokowski(!), the audience leapt to its feet, and Dawson was called back to the stage for several bows. Although it was extraordinarily well received in its original form, Dawson revised the piece in 1952, following a trip to Africa; and it was this revised version that was recorded by Stokowski in 1963. After that, the work basically disappeared from the repertoire until 1992, when it was recorded by the Detroit Symphony and Neeme Jarvi…then again until just this year, when it was recorded by the Vienna Radio Symphony and Arthur Fagen.

Here’s to hoping this music (and so many other pieces that have been all but lost to the passage of time) enjoy a well deserved resurgence on our concert programs!


- Vienna Radio Symphony/Arthur Fagen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DKpSxzw1le0&list=PLX_M8twdUl-AtrD-thpYl_SwPdZQta1tt

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