Canon in the Smelting Pot: William L. Dawson

Looking at early 20th century music written by Black Americans, particularly music written during the Harlem Renaissance, one cannot help but notice the consistent presence of spirituals. Whether as arrangements, or as quotations in more abstract instrumental works, or as original melodies written in the style of, spirituals seem to form the backbone of Black American classical music. Florence Price, for example, wrote a number of arrangements of spirituals for solo voice and piano, a Concert Overture on Negro Spirituals, and Negro Spirituals in Counterpoint for string quartet. William Grant Still, Margaret Bonds, and today's composer, William L. Dawson, all also wrote or included spiritual styles in their music.

Of course, other Black musics appear, as well. Florence Price used the juba dance as an analogue to the waltz/minuet of the symphonic scherzo. William Grant Still used the blues progression in his Afro-American Symphony. Jazz and its precursor, ragtime, make regular appearances as well. But, in my listenings at least, these other Black styles form a presence in a constellation centered around the spiritual melodies. Which is kind of curious, right? That jazz ends up being more strongly associated with white symphonic composers of the time, like George Gershwin, Aaron Coland, and Leonard Bernstein, than with Black symphonic composers. I have some guesses why this might be the case, but I'm hardly knowledgeable enough to speak on it.

The use of spirituals in Black American music is, in many ways, a natural outgrowth of a century-long movement connecting "high art" with "low" or "folk art." Early examples are Beethoven's use of the ländler dance in place of the by-then traditional minuet movement in symphonies and sonatas, Chopin's mazurkas, Mahler's use of the Viennese Waltz. Examples abound. Dvorak's famous pronouncements, "The cultural heritage of the American Negro is one of America's richest treasures," and "The future of this country must be founded on what are called the Negro melodies" provided additional oomph to Black composer's use of spiritual melodies. Florence Price's First Symphony has a number of allusions and similarities to Dvorak's New World Symphony.
But for this post, I'm mostly curious about a criticism levied against William Dawson's arrangements and conducting of spirituals, performed at Carnegie Hall in 1933. Leading the Tuskegee Choir to a triumphant six-week performance series, William Dawson's performances can be considered nothing less than a resounding success. And yet, one New York Times reviewer wrote, "Alas! Like some other Negro choruses, this one has not escaped the seduction of classicism. The spirituals ... were delivered with the precise formality that oratorio societies sometime mistakenly bestow upon Handel or Bach." The review goes on in this way, eventually concluding "The result of this treatment, unhappily, was to render the spirituals sterile and to substitute their gorgeous vitality pallid concert pieces, stripped of their racial authenticity."
I've seen this type of criticism before, that folk musics, translated into music of the European concert halls, loses something essential. It has not the moisture which is the essence of wetness, and so lacks the wetness so necessary to beauty. Some say. One section of the book "Music and the Armenian Diaspora: Searching for Home in Exile," for instance, details a variety of composers jostling about, accusing first one, then another approach to setting Armenian folk tunes as being inauthentic. The threat of this type of criticism is endemic to any attempts at using or referencing folk musics. The classical side bristles at the perceived contamination of high culture, the folksy side resents their music stuffed in hoity-toity garb.
Of course, something is always lost in translation. Moving musics from spontaneous aural traditions into notation is not difficult, it is impossible. Notation can only provide, at best, a blueprint and once set stands as a stone monument, rather than as a breathing organism. Many details are lost because they simply can't be notated. Or, if they are, result in a stupefyingly complex appearance. Bartok's transcriptions of Bulgarian folk tunes come to mind. Ornaments are dropped. Nuance is lost. Subtlety of natural improvisation must be compensated for by other means. In the course of translation to notated form, the result is different by necessity. Just like translating a book into a movie, they can never be the same.
But, I dunno. I think Mr. Dawson's arrangements are pretty darn cool. They certainly aren't spirituals you would find sung in Black churches, obviously. I mean, I spent half this article talking about why they can't be. But he has a great ear for choral sonority and color. And his Negro Folk Symphony is a refreshing work, expressive without necessarily being emotive. I can only speculate why Mr. Dawson moved away from composing. Maybe he found conducting and teaching more fulfilling. Maybe he was dissatisfied by the meteoric rise and fall of his Negro Folk Symphony's popularity, so turned to other pursuits. Maybe the seismic shits in styles during the 1940's left him cold. Whatever it is, I'm glad he wrote what he wrote. Here's a recording of him conducting the Tuskagee Choir in his arrangement of King Jesus is a-Listening.