William Dawson, Ulysses Kay

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.

If you’re expecting “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” or “Were You there?” you’ll be disappointed, as most of them are little-known, although there is the inevitable, fleeting echo of Dvořák’s New World Symphony. The orchestration is vivid and exciting and the most memorable passage for me was the jarring chord in the second movement followed by a plangent passage on viola and cello then horn and flute over pizzicato strings. Unfortunately, Dawson was a one-hit wonder who spent more time collecting and arranging African American music than composing.

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. Don’t expect jolly tarantellas: it could just as easily be about Alice Springs.

Composers: William Dawson, Ulysses Kay
Compositions: Negro Folk Symphony, Fantasy Variations, Umbrian Scene
Performers: ORF Vienna Radio Symphony, Arthur Fagen
Catalogue Number:NAXOS 8559870