Roderick Cox

A Celebration of Black Music III

Accompanied by fellow American artists and by the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, Thomas Hampson presents works written by Afro-American composers. Available until 6 June 2022.

»Hope in the Night«: The title of the third part of Thomas Hampson’s »A Celebration of Black Music« is taken from the middle movement of William Levi Dawson’s »Negro Folk Symphony«. Dawson made use of well-known spiritual tunes in this pioneering work, and the premiere was accorded an enthusiastic welcome in 1934. The first half of this concert programme revolves entirely around the genre of the traditional spiritual, be it gentle arrangements of the originals, like those by Hale Smith, or as inspiration for the operas of William Grant Still. The influence of spirituals is heard in both vocal or instrumental pieces on this programme: rhythms and melodies get under one’s skin with their portraits of shattered dreams and dreams come true, of farewells and new starts, of courage and hope. An evening full of superb musical treasures!

Note: All Hamburg International Music Festival 2021 concerts are available to stream free of charge. Once premiered, each concert stream can be accessed for the whole festival period.


Thomas Hampson: A Celebration of Black Music

An overview of all 2021 festival concerts.

Teaser »Song of America: A Celebration of Black Music«


The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen

Louise Toppin soprano
Leah Hawkins soprano
Lawrence Brownlee tenor
Thomas Hampson baritone

conductor Roderick Cox



»Hope in the Night«

Duration: approx. 120 minutes

Louise Toppin & Thomas Hampson Louise Toppin & Thomas Hampson © Daniel Dittus
Lea Hawkins Lea Hawkins © Daniel Dittus
Roderick Cox Roderick Cox © Daniel Dittus
»A Celebration of Music« »A Celebration of Music« © Daniel Dittus
Lawrence Brownlee Lawrence Brownlee © Daniel Dittus
Thomas Hampson & Dr. Louise Toppin Thomas Hampson & Dr. Louise Toppin © Sophie Wolter
Leah Hawkins Leah Hawkins © Sophie Wolter
Lawrence Brownlee Lawrence Brownlee © Sophie Wolter
Leah Hawkins & Lawrence Brownlee Leah Hawkins & Lawrence Brownlee © Sophie Wolter
Leah Hawkins Leah Hawkins © Sophie Wolter
Louise Toppin Louise Toppin © Sophie Wolter

The Artists

Louise Toppin – soprano

Louise Toppin
Louise Toppin © Romanieo Golphin

Leah Hawkins – soprano

Leah Hawkins
Leah Hawkins © Dario Acosta

Lawrence Brownlee – tenor

Thomas Hampson – baritone

Thomas Hampson
Thomas Hampson © Jiyang-Chen

Roderick Cox – conductor

Roderick Cox
Roderick Cox © uncredited

Die Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen

Die Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen
Die Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen © Julia Baier

Hope in the Night :The programme

Spirituals grew out of a terrible and uniquely North American history of slavery. Indeed, they can be found nowhere else. Unlike in Latin America, which considered it more economically advantageous to replenish their populations from West Africa after working people to death, North American slaveholders encouraged their enslaved Africans to have children, thus creating a much larger native-born population and, eventually, an emerging and sustained African American culture.

A catholic Latin America permitted a religious hybridity between West African religions and the catholic culture of saints (e.g., voodoo in Haiti) in a way that a staunchly protestant North America did not. It is out of this protestant North American musical tradition that spirituals emerged. Uniquely West African in their polyrhythmic nature but also greatly influenced by Anglo-American hymnody, African American spirituals retold tales of the Old and New Testament. Many spirituals shared triumphant stories of ordinary men defeating powerful enemies, such as Daniel in the lion’s den, Jonah and the whale, or David fighting Goliath.

Valery Coleman
Valery Coleman © Matt Murphy

For the longest time, spirituals were part of Black everyday life, performed at camp meetings, hummed while working, or sung as code to signal a planned escape. It was only in the late nineteenth century—after the abolition of slavery in the 1860s—that spirituals became something performed in a formal concert. The Fisk Jubilee Singers were the first musical ensemble to bring them around the world—first, to England in 1873, and then to Germany in 1877, where the ensemble resided for ten months singing the music of their ancestors. At the Royal Palace in Potsdam, Crown Princess Victoria (1840-1901) burst into tears once the ensemble began to sing. She apologized after their concert for openly weeping so much. What moved Crown Princess Victoria then, and what continues to move us today, are some of the core beliefs that spirituals express in beautiful harmony: hope, strength, and resilience. 

Those themes are on display in this evening’s concert program. Valerie Coleman’s (b. 1970) »Umoja« is a ten-minute joyful ode to the Swahili word, »unity«. The first composition by a living Black woman composer to be performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra when it premiered in 2019, it races quickly by and has the feel of a concerto grosso at times.

William Grant Still
William Grant Still © Carl van Mechelen

The music of William Grant Still (1895-1978) and Pulitzer-prize winner George Walker (1922-2018) are equally vibrant and inspirational. Although William Grant Still is most known for his Afro-American Symphony (1930), which was the first symphony by a Black American composer to be performed by a major orchestra, he was an opera composer through and through. He wrote eight different operas over the course of his lifetime. Some of his most glorious opera arias are on this concert program, including »Golden Days« (1957), which sounds as lush and beautiful as the sunrise.

George Walker’s »Lyric for Strings« (1946) is just as glorious. Reminiscent perhaps of Samuel Barber’s (1910-1981) »Adagio for Strings« (1936), it sweeps you off your feet with its tense, dramatic melody. The second half of the concert program focuses on the spirituals from which we have such a rich and diverse cornucopia of African American art music today. Hale Smith’s (1925-2009) orchestral arrangement of four spirituals takes full advantage of the large ensemble to give these important songs the rich and transcendent musical settings they deserve.

George Walker
George Walker © Curtis Institute

Margaret Bonds’s (1913-1972) classic arrangement, »He’s Got the Whole World«—sung by countless African American opera singers such as Kathleen Battle (b. 1948) and the late, great Jessye Norman (1945-2019)—can rouse any audience to its feet. 

Of the three African American symphonies to break the racial barrier and premiere with major orchestras—William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony (1931), Florence B. Price’s (1887-1953) Symphony in E Minor (1933), and William Dawson’s (1899-1990) Negro Folk Symphony (1934)—it is William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony that remains the least performed, even though Dawson, unlike Still, actually incorporated spirituals into his symphony. At the time of its premiere, however, Dawson received near-unanimous praise. »It is classic in form but Negro in substance«, the great titan Alain Locke (1885-1954) wrote. It built on the great symphonic tradition but, »more than anything else, it is unimpeachably Negro.«

William Dawson
William Dawson © uncredited

Tonight’s concert is part of a growing sea change demanding we bring Dawson’s symphony back. Comprised of three movements, the symphony does not quote singable melodies from spirituals but rather flexibly incorporates them into nearly every aspect of the work. At the heart of the symphony is the theme for tonight’s concert: »hope in the night«. Dawson described the second movement as an »atmosphere of the humdrum life of a people whose bodies were baked by the sun and lashed with the whip for two hundred and fifty years; whose lives were proscribed before they were born.« But in the darkness, hope springs eternal.

Text: Kira Thurman

In collaboration with the Hampsong Foundation

Supported by the Kühne Foundation, the Hamburg Ministry of Culture and Media, Stiftung Elbphilharmonie and the Förderkreis Internationales Musikfest Hamburg

last updated: 04.06.2021

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