Composers Datebook®

Dawson's "Negro Folk Symphony"

Composer's Datebook - September 26, 2023


Today’s date in 1899 marks the birthday of the famous African-American composer, choir director, and teacher, William L. Dawson, in Anniston, Alabama. After musical studies in Kansas City and Chicago, from 1931 to 1956 Dawson taught at the Tuskegee Institute, where he developed the Institute’s Choir into an internationally-renowned ensemble.

Dawson’s arrangements of African-American spirituals, which he preferred to call folksongs, are justly famous, but in 1934 he produced his masterwork, a Negro Folk Symphony, modeled on Dvorak’s New World Symphony, but exhibiting Dawson’s own distinctive mastery and development of his themes. His goal, he said, was for audiences to know that it was "unmistakably not the work of a white man."

"The themes,” wrote Dawson, “are taken from what are popularly known as Negro Spirituals. In this composition, the composer has employed themes … over which he has brooded since childhood, having learned them at his mother's knee."

Dawson’s symphony was successfully premiered by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, who took the new work to Carnegie Hall, where its 35-year old composer was repeatedly called to the stage. The symphony was revised in 1952 with added African rhythms inspired by the composer's trip to West Africa.

Music Played in Today's Program

William L. Dawson (1899 – 1990) Negro Folk Symphony Symphony of the Air; Leopold Stokowski, cond DG 477 6502

On This Day


  • 1898 - American pianist and composer George Gershwin in Brooklyn;


  • 1800 - Early American composer William Billings, age 53, in Boston; He died in poverty and was buried in an unmarked grave in Boston Common;

  • 1945 - Hungarian pianist and composer Béla Bartók, age 64, in New York City;


  • 1835 - Donizetti: opera "Lucia di Lammermoor," at the Teatro San Carlos in Naples;

  • 1898 - Victor Herbert: operetta, "The Fortune Teller," in Toronto;

  • 1907 - Sibelius: Symphony No. 3, by the Helsinki Philharmonic, with the composer conducting;

  • 1915 - Schillings: opera "Mona Lisa," in Stuttgart at the Hoftheater;

  • 1938 - Kurt Weill: musical, "Knickerbocker Holiday," during trial run in Hartford, Conn.; The musical opened in New York on October 19, 1938;

  • 1957 - Bernstein: musical "West Side Story," at the Winter Garden in New York City; A trial run of the musical had premiered during a trial run in Washington, D.C. at the National Theater on August 19, 1957;

  • 1967 - Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No. 2 by the Moscow Philharmonic, Kirill Kondrashin conducting, with soloist David Oistrakh;

  • 1991 - Wuorinen: cantata "Genesis," in San Francisco, Herbert Blomstedt conducting;

  • 1997 - Kirchner: "Of Things Exactly As They Are," with vocalists Roberta Alexander and William Stone, with the Boston Symphony and Tanglewood Chorus conducted by Seiji Ozawa;

  • 1998 - Philip Glass: opera "The White Raven," by the San Carlos National Theater at the World Expo in Lisbon, Portugal, with Dennis Russell Davies conducting;


  • 1962 - Igor Stravinsky concert by the Moscow State Symphony during the composer's first visit to Russia in 48 years; Stravinsky conducts his "Ode" and "Orpheus" Ballet, Stravinsky's assistant Robert Craft conducts "The Rite of Spring," with the composer returning to conduct his 1917 arrangement of the "Volga Boatmen's Song" as an encore.

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About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

About Composers Datebook®