Lillian Evanti: We see her success but cannot hear it

Lillian Evanti was a prominent opera singer, and one of the first, if not the first African-American women to tour with a European opera company. Additionally, she was a founding member of the National Negro Opera Company, performing as Violetta in their performance of Verdi’s La Traviata. As a famous performer, Evanti gave concerts and recitals all over the United States and Western Europe. One such performance was at the Hall of Americas in the Pan-American Union, celebrating many Latin American composers.

Lillian Evanti with John Hoskins at the Pan-American Union.
Robert H. McNeil, Lillian Evanti and John Hoskins perform at the Hall of the Americas Pan American Union, 1946, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Box 26, Folder 54.

Evanti’s program included works from Mexican, Cuban, Argentinian, and Venzuelan composers (both women and men), an aria from Il Guarany, an opera composed by Antônio Carlos Gomes, as well as a few of her own original compositions. Her performance of a diverse range of composers shows that she uplifts silenced and underrepresented voices. Her contribution of original compositions for this occasion, “Himno Panamericano,” and “Honor a Trujillo,” not only shows musical virtuosity, but also a willing spirit to participate in diplomacy and international relations. 

Recital program, detailing the composers and pieces she performed, including her originals.
Program featuring Lillian Evanti and John Hoskins, Union of American Republics, 1946, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Box 32 Folder 29.

While researching Lillian Evanti, both for this blog post and for my group mapping project, I found myself confused and frustrated at the fact that recordings of Lillian Evanti singing either do not exist, or are extremely hard to come by. It made me wonder why such a prominent and successful singer was not documented in this way. In just a few simple google searches, I found recordings from two other female opera singers who were contemporaries of Lillian Evanti. So why are there no recordings of Evanti even though her contemporaries received this kind of documentation and legacy? Of course, I cannot say the true answer because I do not know. But I can only speculate as to why Evanti’s legacy lives on in pictures rather than audio. Even if she was a famous performer and traveled the world giving performances, the fact still remains that she was African-American. Her success was revolutionary and a great step towards diversifying the Western canon, but unfortunately her identity as a member of a marginalized community may have contributed to her lack of existent audio recordings compared to her contemporaries. While you might not immediately think about the repercussions of something that happened 80-100 years ago, this proves that the effects of racism and inequity are still felt today, as now we cannot truly discover the legacy of Lillian Evanti. We can read reviews of so many concerts, recitals, and other performances telling us how beautiful and lyrical her voice was, but as far as I know, we will never be able to hear her voice and understand part of why she was so successful.

Citations included in photo captions.

Harry T. Burleigh: accomplished composer, talented baritone… and Dvořák’s muse?

One of the most beloved African-American composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was Harry T. Burleigh. Born and raised in Erie, Pennsylvania, he learned to sing spirituals from his mother and sang in various church and community events throughout his childhood. In his teenage years, he became known as a fantastic classical singer, and got to work at and see many famous people perform, such as Venezuelan pianist Teresa Carreño. Then, a few years after high school in 1892, Burleigh began to attend the National Conservatory of Music in New York on scholarship for voice (1).

But, by the title of this blog post, how does any of this relate to Czech person and well-known composer Antonín Dvořák?

Well, Dvořák happened to immigrate the United States in 1892 also to become the director of the National Conservatory of Music! He both taught classes and conducted the conservatory orchestra, which Burleigh also happened to become the librarian and copyist for. As a result of this, Dvořák and Burleigh worked together frequently, which eventually turned into a friendship. A particularly cute story from their friendship comes from a letter Dvořák wrote to his family back home that his son “[would sit] on Burleigh’s lap during the orchestra’s rehearsals and [play] the tympani” (2).

However, the relationship between the two bettered their compositions as well. Dvořák would often overhear Burleigh singing spirituals to himself while working or in the halls, and, not knowing much about spirituals, would talk to him about them and learn many of the songs from him. Dvořák then encouraged Burleigh to begin composing and arranging these spirituals (1). This would kickstart a prolific composing career for Burleigh, who incorporated spirituals into many of his original art songs, arrangements, and other compositions, and amassed a portfolio of over 200 works. Here is a review of his works from the Afro-American Cullings section of the Cleveland Gazette (3):

Dvořák also found ample inspiration in the African-American folk music he learned from Burleigh and gained a huge amount of respect for it. In fact, he was so displeased that white Americans did not care for African-American music that wrote several news articles in the New York Herald, in which he argued that the soul of American music lies in Black music, which the Herald’s white readers found difficult to swallow, to say the least. Here are a few words from an article he wrote in 1893, with even a picture of Burleigh (4):

Dvořák then composed his New World Symphony (here’s a link to its very famous Largo movement) based off several spirituals, the pentatonic and blues scale – all learned from Burleigh – and Indigenous music, and it gained massive acclaim and spreading rapidly throughout the country (3). Black communities across the country absolutely adored the work, and grew to become very fond of and proud of both Dvořák and Burleigh, as can be seen in this from the Cleveland Gazette (5):Thankfully, and radically for the time, Dvořák gave much credit to Burleigh for the conception of many of the ideas for his New World Symphony (2).

Sources:

(1) “H. T. Burleigh (1866-1949)”. 2022. The Library Of Congress. https://loc.gov/item/ihas.200035730.

(2) “African American Influences”. 2022. DAHA. https://www.dvoraknyc.org/african-american-influences.

(3) “Afro-American Cullings.” Cleveland Gazette, October 30, 1915: 4. Readex: African American Newspapers. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A12B716FE88B82998%40EANAAA-12BC1B62334A2850%402420801-12BA063BD57BDCD8%403-12DBB540D0E6C840%40Afro-American%2BCullings.

(4) Dvořák, Antonin. 1893. “Antonin Dvořák On Negro Melodies”. New York Herald, May 28th, 1893. https://static.qobuz.com/info/IMG/pdf/NYHerald-1893-May-28-Recentre.pdf.

(5) “[America; Dr. Antonin Dvorak; Mr. Harry T. Burleigh; Erie; Samuel P. Warren].” Cleveland Gazette, September 23, 1893: 2. Readex: African American Newspapers. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A12B716FE88B82998%40EANAAA-12C2B9DB2DFFBDD8%402412730-12C106453A9F6688%401-12D7B8B19C518AD0%40%255BAmerica%253B%2BDr.%2BAntonin%2BDvorak%253B%2BMr.%2BHarry%2BT.%2BBurleigh%253B%2BErie%253B%2BSamuel%2BP.%2BWarren%255D.

Samuel Coleridge Taylor: the African American Perspective

TW: Discussions of racism and mention of lynchings. 

Coleridge-Taylor’s preeminent work, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the Anglo-African Composer – Mary Church Terrell Article from “The Independent …Devoted to the Consideration of Politics, Social and Economic Tendencies, History, Literature, and the Arts”

 

Before Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s first American tour, writer Mary Church Terrell traveled to London to profile Coleridge-Taylor as a prominent “Anglo-African Composer” for an American audience. Within her writing, we can see how an African American audience would perceive Coleridge Taylor’s music and status as a prominent British composer. Continue reading

Harry Burleigh–A Nice Post for Once

We have been tackling some difficult ethical issues in this class regarding how we should feel and respond to the shameful reality of minstrelsy and its related veins. One conclusion we have come to is to acknowledge the past, recognize (white) America’s shortcomings, and point ourselves and others in the direction of something better. In my research for this post, I feel I have found that something better.

Sheet music for “Steal Away” arr. by H.T. Burleigh.
Complete sheet music here.

I came across the spiritual, “Steal Away,”1 the name of which I recognized as a song Viking Chorus sang during my freshman year. I found that the spiritual was arranged by Harry T. Burleigh, and reading about him was a little shining star in this (at times) depressing class. A rendition of the spiritual can be found on Youtube, among several others.

Harry Thacker Burleigh (b. 1866) is recognized as the first and among the most influential African American composers in post-Civil War America. He studied at the New York National Conservatory of Music where he became friends with Antonín Dvorák, who was the school’s director. They spent ample time together, Burleigh sharing with Dvorák the black spirituals and plantation songs that he had heard from his grandfather. Dvorák encouraged Burleigh to save these songs, to arrange them as his work.2 Thankfully, he did. “Steal Away” is one of the hundreds of pieces he arranged and composed. His most successful song is likely his arrangement of “Deep River” (1917), a song many people today recognize.3

Photograph of Harry T. Burleigh by Carl Van Vechten

In the booklet of “Negro Spirituals” from which I found “Steal Away,” one of the first pages is a single page note from Burleigh on spirituals. Similar to the descriptions of spirituals Eileen Southern provides in Antebellum Rural Life,4 Burleigh outlines them as “spontaneous outbursts of intense religious fervor, and had their origin chiefly in camp meetings, revivals and other religious exercises”. He goes on to condemn the portrayals of blacks and their music in minstrel shows, declaring that the attempted humorous mimicry of “the manner of the Negro in singing them” is a “serious misconception of their meaning and value”.5

It is my belief that, with the knowledge of the shortcomings of American culture in our hearts, we should look to and celebrate those who do not fall into the questionable traditions we have encountered. I think Harry T. Burleigh is a splendid example. Thus, I would like to end this post with the ending words of Burleigh’s note in the booklet. He speaks of that value mentioned above, the true value of spirituals.

Their worth is weakened unless they are done impressively, for through all these songs breathes a hope, a faith in the ultimate justice and brotherhood of man. The cadences of sorrow invariably turn to joy, the message is ever manifest that eventually deliverance from all that hinders and oppresses the soul will come, and man–every man–will be free.

–H.T.B.

Florence B. Price

On June 15th, 1933, Florence Price made history: the Chicago Symphony premiered her Symphony in E minor, making her the first African-American woman composer to have a work performed by a major orchestra.

This work, originally subtitled “Negro Symphony,” draws on many of the stylistic traits of African-American folk music without ever explicitly quoting folk melodies;  instead of writing symphonic music around a 12-bar blues or a spiritual tune, as did many of her contemporaries, Price instead incorporates some of the harmonic and melodic elements of blues and spirituals into her own unique voice.  The resulting composition is strikingly original.

Despite the high quality of her music, Price had difficulty attaining performances of her work.  In a 1943 letter to Sergei Koussevitzky, she explains the manifold struggles she faces as both a female composer and a composer of color:

“Unfortunately the work of a woman composer is preconceived by many to be light, frothy, lacking in depth, logic, and virility.  Add to that the incident of race – I have Colored blood in my veins – and you will understand some of the difficulties that confront one in such a position”

In the remainder of the letter, Price asks Koussevitzky to consider one of her compositions, insisting that he make “no concession” on the basis of race or sex, but rather evaluate the score on its musical merit alone.  Despite receiving many such letters from Price, Koussevitzky never programmed a single one of her works.

The underrepresentation and erasure of Florence Price continues to the present day: after searching several databases, I found that there is only one recording of the Symphony in E minor that is readily available to the public.  Scholarly research on Price’s life is also relatively sparse, with the writings of late musicologist Rae Linda Brown existing as some of the only works that honor Price’s life and pay homage to her music.  The conspicuous silence surrounding Price in scholarly and musical discourses clearly illustrates the racist and sexist systems that ceaselessly oppress female composers of color.  Performing, researching, and recording the music of these underrepresented composers is essential if we ever hope to dismantle these systems and construct a new musical landscape that truly offers equal opportunities for all people.

Sources

Fabre, Geneviève, and Michel Feith. Temples for tomorrow: looking back at the Harlem Renaissance. Indiana University Press, 2001.

Price, Florence B. “Recorded Music of the African Diaspora, Vol. 3.” Albany Records, 2011.