When the Czech composer Antonin Dvořák began speaking publicly on the state and future of American music he was something of an outsider wandering naively into fierce debates among America’s cultural elite.
Dvořák, who’d recently moved to America, argued that the most interesting musical works being produced in the country were not the imitations of Brahms and Wagner coming from the salons of New England. Rather, he argued, it was Indigenous music, African American spirituals, and ragtime. The sentiment seems like a truism now, but his statements provoked bitter reaction from mainstream musicians and critics at the time. This is not to exaggerate Dvořák’s daring; the real bravery came from those musicians of colour who continued to make art despite the immense hostility they faced.
One of those musicians was Harry Burleigh (pictured above, and some of whose music we’ve assembled into a Spotify playlist here.) The African American and classically-trained composer, arranger, and baritone was the first to introduce Dvořák to spirituals while Burleigh was a student at the National Conservatory of Music and Dvořák its director. At Dvořák’s request, Burleigh spent many evenings singing spirituals for the enchanted Dvořák. By 1894, he had earned the prestigious position of baritone soloist at the affluent St. George’s Episcopal Church of New York (controversially on account of his colour), providing him with both the financial stability and a professional springboard to pursue his musical career. He published his first collection of art songs, and a fascinating compositional career was born. Soon he was lecturing at Black universities and colleges, and rubbing shoulders with such celebrated figures as Booker T. Washington and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Many of Burleigh’s songs are settings of spirituals, and he was an originator of the ‘concert spiritual’ form — spirituals arranged with classical elements — which was to play an important role in the music of Gershwin (most notably Porgy and Bess) and others in the early years of jazz. Burleigh also influenced Dvořák by introducing him to musicians and composers. Among them was violinist Will Marion Cook, who became Dvořák’s student, and later a celebrated Broadway composer, conductor, and mentor of Duke Ellington.
When we read about America’s strides at the turn of the century in forging a distinct musical voice, we often hear about Dvořák’s impact, but there are many musicians of non-European descent that must be considered too. A stamp of approval from a revered, Old World figure like Dvořák no doubt helped lend an air of ‘respectability’ to distinctly American music, but it was pioneering Black composers like Burleigh — as well as Florence Price, William Grant Still, Scott Joplin and others — who represented that originality first-hand.