William Dawson’s Spirituals

The Spirituals Of William L. Dawson (#2159)
One of the pioneers of the movement of creating “art music” out of the orally transmitted African-American spirituals was William Dawson (1899-1990). He was one of several notables including R. Nathaniel Dett and Harry T. Burleigh. Although Dawson composed a variety of concert music that was well-received and has been recorded, it is his spiritual arrangements that are his most lasting legacy. My church choir has performed several of them over the years. They are full-fledged choral works, not simple, requiring good intonation and rhythmic precision, and often operatic-level soloists. I recently stumbled upon a 1997 recording of Dawson’s most famous spirituals, performed by the St. Olaf Choir. What? That bastion of white American Lutheranism peforming these pieces? After one recovers from the shock of the idea, it does make sense: St. Olaf has always had purity of tone, pitch and rhythm. Their current director, Anton Armstrong, is African-American. And the Dawson arrangements have found a place in the standard choral repertoire.

The performances are excellent, as one expects from the famed St. Olaf Choir. They are the cream of the crop of a very musical college. The soprano soloist on several of the numbers is Marvis Martin. She has a full-bodied tone, but seems to have trouble sustaining breath control over even moderate-length phrases.

One rather bizarre artistic choice that Mr. Armstrong has made is in the tempo of one of the most famous of the spirituals, “Soon Ah Will Be Done.” The tempo marking is fast (as I recall, the half note =104). Armstrong conducts the refrains of “Soon ah will be done with the troubles of the world” as a very slow dirge, with the stanzas at the marked tempo. When I first heard it, I thought, “how odd,” but it does cast a different light on the arrangement.

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