William Grant Still (1895-1978), Florence B. Price (1888-1953), and William Levi Dawson (1899-1990) were all black composers writing in a time of rebirth in the black literary arts called "The Harlem Renaissance" or "The Black Renaissance." Black artists of all mediums—writers, poets, painters, and musicians—were encouraged by black leaders to draw upon their own African cultural heritage and events of recent black history, including lynchings, riots, segregation, and discrimination, for inspiration in their own respective artistic media. Young African-American composers were also influenced, ironically, by the Czech composer Antonín Dvorák (1841-1904), who recognized and promoted the wealth of American material found in the melodies and harmonies of the blues, spirituals, and jazz for use in concert music. Though their conservatory training focused primarily on traditional Western music compositional techniques, Still, Price, and Dawson are recognized for incorporating these “black” musical styles into their classical compositions.
Many scholars, such as Rae Linda Brown, Eileen Southern, Samuel Floyd, and Teresa Shelton [Reed] have analyzed works by these composers. While their analyses addressed traditional Western aspects of these works, they do not account for the bifurcated roots of the musical style of these three composers. This study will fuse four analytical techniques: a semiotic analysis based on the literary theory of Henry Louis Gates in his book The Signifyin(g) Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism, traditional formal analysis, linear reductions and voice-leading graphs, as well as an identification of musical traits associated with African or black
music. In so doing, I hope to provide a clearer understanding of the black musical narrative in Sill’s Afro-American Symphony, Price’s E minor Symphony, and Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony, to shed light on the critical role they played in the development of a unique American style.