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.