African Americans have made important contributions to classical music, as I pointed out in the post about Samuel Coleridge-Taylor a couple of months ago. I know a little about classical music although I remember the major composers the way many do, by the 4 Bs: Brahms, Bach, Beethoven, and Bigfoot. Bigfoot could really wail, and still does according to some people. Who could forget his iconic and literal smash hit, “Knock 3 times on a Tree Trunk if You Fear Me” (Opus 3, No. 7, adagio on rye in G-Minor)?
Seriously, it turns out that there is an Iowa Connection for an African American musician, Harry T. Burleigh, who influenced Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, ‘From the New World.’ I listened to the work for first time in my life as I wrote this post. Burleigh was an accomplished composer, arranger, and baritone vocalist. He sang traditional spirituals, which inspired Dvorak to say “In the negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.” It is reported by some writers that the Largo of Symphony 9 was influenced by spiritual music. I think even my untrained ear caught that.
Anyway, Dvorak visited Spillville, Iowa back in the summer of 1893. He lived on the second floor of what is now the Dvorak Exhibit and the Bily Clock Museum. A Des Moines Register article published in 2018 mentioned him going for walks along the Turkey River and played the organ for the local church congregation. He carried “his little bucket of beer like everybody did back in the day,” according to a member of a Spillville historical group. David Neely, music director and principal conductor of the Des Moines Metro Opera, said Dvorak “…left a legacy in this country. Not many composers did things like that.” And I would add that Harry T. Burleigh left a legacy in this country as well. Not many people do things like that.
Unfortunately, despite having an impressive funeral after his death in 1949, he was initially buried in an unmarked grave in White Plains, New York. He was later given a proper internment in the Erie Cemetery in Pennsylvania.
There is only one surviving recording of him singing “Go Down Moses.” It’s on YouTube. One of his biographers, Jean E. Snyder, commented that Burleigh himself did not care for the recording. He wrote the definitive arrangement of many Negro Spirituals including “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “Deep River.”