Anton Dvorák, Harry T. Burleigh
and the Origin of African-American Art Song

      "The cultural heritage of the American Negro is one of America's richest treasures. From his roots as a slave, the American Negro - sometimes sorrowing, sometimes jubilant but always hopeful - has touched, illuminated and influenced the most remote preserves of world civilization. I and my dance theater celebrate this trembling beauty." (Alvin Ailey speaking of his dance company in a recent article in the New York Times). This realization has been a long time in developing in the broader American consciousness.

      When Antonin Dvorák arrived in New York City in 1892 to head the recently formed National Conservatory of Music with a mandate to create a national music for the United States, he said "There is more than enough material here and plenty of talent."

      Joseph Horowitz, in the New York Times article of February 10, 2002 suggests that by "material" Dvorák meant American sights and sounds, American roots: "another spirit, other thoughts, another coloring . . . something Indian." He also heard "Negro melodies" like Deep River and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and was quoted in the New York Herald in May 1893 that this was the foundation for "the future music of this country."

      The reason this is so remarkable is that Dvorák listened to this music without racial bias. His statement was controversial because after the Civil War the American cultural myth was that red and black-skinned human beings were innately inferior. The recent PBS program on race showed that the Harvard professor Louis Agassiz, Boston's most famous scientist and leading American intellectual, taught that the races had evolved at different rates and belong to a different species and that blacks were irredeemably inferior. Even one-time Abolitionists and fervent Unionists were likely to subscribe to theories of racial hierarchy.

      Dvorák met Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949) the year he arrived in America. Burleigh had a scholarship to the National Conservatory and at age twenty-six he came to New York City from Erie, Pennsylvania where he had received his musical training. He was an accomplished all around musician with a fine baritone voice, played double-bass and timpani in the Conservatory Orchestra and later taught solfčge and piano. Burleigh sang for Dvorák the sorrow songs (spirituals) that he learned from his blind grandfather, a former slave. Antonin Dvorák called Go Down Moses as great a melody as any Beethoven wrote and encouraged Burleigh to write out and sing these songs. For his part, Dvorák steeped himself in sorrow song melodies and used them in his own American works, including his Symphony from the New World. The critic Philip Hale of the Boston Journal found that "the plantation melodies contaminated high art of this new symphony," and his American Suite (Opus 89) and Eight Humoresques for Piano written in America.

      Burleigh became Dvorák's personal assistant and family friend and they worked together. The money to fund the Conservatory came from a boom in the American economy and when it went bust the funds ran out and in 1895 he packed his belongings and went home to Prague.

      Burleigh remained in New York and gave an annual concert of spirituals for fifty-two years at St. George's Episcopal Church in Manhattan. For twenty-five years he sang at Temple Emanu-El in New York and toured the U.S. and Europe where he sang a command performance for King Edward VII of England.

      Perhaps more importantly he went on to write art songs, publish many spirituals, become an editor for ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Artists and Publishers). In time his spirituals became standards and his art songs were sung by John McCormack, Ernestine Schumann-Heink and other famous singers, to great critical acclaim. We should note here that all of these singers were white Europeans, not Americans!

      The booklet for the CD From the Southland, Songs, Piano Sketches and Spirituals of Harry T. Burleigh (Premier Recordings PRC 1041) is a good sampling of what his music has to offer. Dvorák's song cycle Biblical Songs Opus 99 was composed while he was in America . This and three other song cycles by him can be found on RCA Victor Red Seal CD (09026-60823-2) titled Dvorák, Janácek, Martinu Songs sung by Gabriela Benaková. Give these a listen and let me know if you hear any parallels. I didn't.


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