Works by William Dawson & Ulysses Kay

Title: William Dawson Negro Folk Symphony/Ulysses Kay Fantasy Variations & Umbrian Scene
Artist: ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra; Arthur Fagan, cond.
Label: Naxos
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: June 16, 2020


Whether intentional or not, Naxos picked an opportune time to release this recording featuring works by two very prominent 20th century African American composers—William Levi Dawson (1899-1990) and his somewhat younger contemporary, Ulysses Simpson Kay (1917-1995). As a result of the Black Lives Matter movement, at least a portion of white America is finally addressing gaps in their knowledge of Black history, having come of age at a time when the historical narrative and education system was (and is) unquestionably white-washed. At the same time, many university music departments and libraries have begun the process of re-examining the Western classical music canon in an attempt to decolonize syllabi and collections. This new release on Naxos American Classics series is certainly a very welcome addition to those efforts. Though most of these works have been released commercially in the past, the most recent of these recordings was issued nearly 20 years ago.

A native of Alabama and son of a former slave, William Dawson received his Master of Music degree in composition from the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago in 1927, and studied under the well-known local composers Felix Borowski and Adolph Weidig (both had a number of works performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra). Dawson began composing his most famous work, Negro Folk Symphony, after moving back to Alabama in 1931 to organize a music department at the Tuskegee Institute, his alma mater. That same year he apparently won the Rodman Wanamaker Contest in Musical Composition for African-American composers, which funded his work on the symphony (the following year the prize would famously go to Florence Price for her Symphony in E minor). Upon its completion, Negro Folk Symphony was premiered in 1934 by the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Leopold Stokowski.

Following his travels through Western Africa in 1952-53, Dawson began substantial revisions to the symphony, hoping to “[infuse] it with a rhythmic foundation strongly inspired by African influences.” The field recordings he made on this journey, along with sketches, drafts, and handwritten scores of the Negro Folk Symphony from approximately 1934 to its final published form in 1963, are housed with the William Levi Dawson Papers at Emory University. The final revised edition of the symphony was recorded without further delay by Stokowski and the American Symphony Orchestra in 1963 for Decca; thirty years later, Neeme Järvi recorded the work with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

This new recording of Negro Folk Symphony by the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra is led by Arthur Fagan, who is also chair of orchestral conducting at the IU Jacobs School of Music. Composed in three movements instead of four, the symphony’s first movement, The Bond of Africa, likely benefited the most from Dawson’s African journey. Featuring a prominent opening horn motif followed by a plaintive English horn, the music unfolds with a sweeping elegance. Though Dawson’s compositional style for this movement follows the standard sonata form, there are jazzier elements as well as fragments of the spiritual “Oh, My Littl’ Soul Gwine-a Shine.” Approaching the climax, a sense of urgency takes over in the strings, while the ominous chords of the brass section hint at the programmatic nature of the title. Shifting to Hope in the Night, the English horn theme returns as a “missing link” that Dawson intended 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,” as explained in the informative liner notes by Frank K. DeWald. This movement builds from the opening Andante section to a livelier Allegretto, symbolic of “the merry play of children yet unaware of the hopelessness beclouding their future.” Concluding with O Let Me Shine!, Dawson embeds thematic material from two lesser known spirituals—“O, Le’ Me Shine, Shine Like a Morning Star!” and “Hallelujah Lord, I Been Down Into the Sea”—as well as Juba rhythms that come to the fore in a rousing, syncopated finale.

Ulysses Kay was a more prolific composer than Dawson, producing over 140 works for opera, orchestra, choir, chamber groups and solo instruments, as well as scoring music for film and television. Born in Arizona, he was encouraged by his uncle, jazz musician King Oliver, to study piano, violin and saxophone. After earning his Masters in Music in 1940 from the Eastman School of Music where he studied with Bernard Rogers and Howard Hanson, Kay also studied for a year under Paul Hindemith, and later Otto Luening. During his life, Kay was awarded numerous fellowships, commissions and prizes for his compositions, and he concluded his distinguished career as a Professor of Music at Herbert H. Lehman College in New York.

Kay began his preliminary notes and sketches for Fantasy Variations in 1958 and completed the work in 1963 (per the Ulysses Kay Papers at Columbia University)—the same year Dawson completed revisions to his Negro Folk Symphony. Kay’s lesser known work, Umbrian Scene, was also composed in 1963. Both were recorded two years later: Fantasy Variations by the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Arthur Bennett Lipkin (who commissioned the work and gave the world premiere with the Portland (Maine) Symphony) was released on CRI; and Umbrian Scene by the Louisville Orchestra conducted by Robert Whitney was released on the Orchestra’s First Edition label. The Naxos recording of this work appears to the first commercial release in 55 years—it is certainly time for a reappraisal!

Fantasy Variations opens with a lush orchestration, but rather quickly asserts a chromatic dissonance as it branches off into the 13 continuous variations. Kay, however, never challenges the listener’s comprehension as he judiciously employs tone clusters and other atonal effects. The overall work is melodic, ebbing and flowing between intricate counterpoint and harmonic unity. Umbrian Scene, according to the liner notes, was commissioned for the New Orleans Philharmonic Symphony by Edward Benjamin, who had established an Award for Restful Music, i.e., music that conformed to his personal ideals of beauty. Kay accepted the challenge, recalling his ‘restful’ time spent in the Italy, “enjoying the glorious choral singing there in the old chapels of Umbia.” The rather mystical opening bars of Umbrian Scene do have a meditative quality, but there’s also a dissonant edge that seems to portend a lurking danger in the bucolic landscape. The climax is anything but restful, with strident horns and pounding timpani, but as the work closes the penultimate chords resolve to the tonic.

The ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and Arthur Fagan give a fantastic reading of these works by William L. Dawson and Ulysses Kay, providing something of a time capsule into the lives of two prominent African American composers in the 1960s. These works certainly stand the test of time and deserve to be programmed and performed with greater frequency.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss