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Christopher Wilkins’ Summer Blog- From the New World: The Legacy of the Spirituals

August 11, 2014

The Boston Landmarks Orchestra will perform its next concert on Wednesday, August 13 at 7 PM at the DCR’s Hatch Shell (Rain Location: Church of the Covenant, 67 Newbury Street). Here are a few words from Music Director Christopher Wilkins.


Throughout his life, Dvořák drew inspiration from the music of common people. He was proud of his own peasant background, and often sought to imbue his compositions with the natural, unpretentious character of folk music. He rarely quoted actual folk melodies, preferring instead to familiarize himself with local traditions so thoroughly that he could capture their essential character in his own music.

So while it was a surprise to many Americans that Dvořák declared the sacred songs born of American slavery an appropriate starting point for the establishment of an American school of composition, it did not surprise those who knew him well. To Dvořák, the spirituals represented a folk tradition as great as any in the world. His pronouncement in the New York Herald on May 21, 1893 was a turning point in American musical life:

“In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. They are pathetic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay or what you will… There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source.”

Dvořák had come to New York City to serve as Director of the newly established National Conservatory of Music, a post he held from 1892-95. The Conservatory had a policy of accepting students of all racial and economic backgrounds, often tuition-free. One student of exceptional talent and character who arrived at the Conservatory just months ahead of Dvořák was Harry T. Burleigh of Erie, PA, the grandson of a freed slave.

Burleigh impressed Dvořák from the beginning, eventually becoming both his friend and his main copyist. Burleigh was in Dvořák’s company on a regular basis as the Ninth Symphony was composed: “I copied many of the orchestra parts of the “New World” Symphony from his original partitur,” Burleigh reported, “getting it ready for its first performance by the [New York] Philharmonic.”

Dvořák learned the spirituals largely from Burleigh. He “literally saturated himself with Negro song,” Burleigh recalled. “I sang our Negro songs for him very often, and before he wrote his own themes, he filled himself with the spirit of the old Spirituals.” “Go Down, Moses. Burleigh, that is as great as a Beethoven theme!” Dvořák once exclaimed to his friend.

Another favorite of Dvořák’s was “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” He seems to quote it directly in the first movement of the “New World” Symphony, where the theme in the solo flute is a near copy of the second and third measures of the spiritual. The famous English horn melody from the second movement of the symphony assumes the character of a spiritual as well, and here too there is a Burleigh story. The Dvořák biographer H. C. Colles reported that the composer changed his original scoring of the tune from clarinets and flutes to solo English horn so as to better approximate Burleigh’s beautiful high baritone. It was a student in Dvořák’s composition class who set that melody to the words “Goin’ Home”: Williams Arms Fisher, who died in Brookline, MA in 1948.

The link between the spirituals and the “New World” Symphony was well established from the beginning. Dvořák himself stressed the connection. Less well understood is the influence that Native American music may have had. Dvořák did indeed go to some length to familiarize himself with music of certain Native American tribes and performers.

What is incontrovertible – and highly interesting especially to a Boston audience – is the connection between Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha and the “New World” Symphony. Dvořák described the Largo of the symphony as “a sketch for a longer work, either a cantata or an opera based upon Longfellow’s Hiawatha.” He went on: “The Scherzo of the symphony was suggested by the scene at the feast in Hiawatha where the Indians dance, and is also an essay I made in the direction of imparting the local color of Indian music…”

Among the most gifted of the African American composers who credited Dvořák with the inspiration to utilize the spirituals was Canadian-born Robert Nathaniel Dett. His setting of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” The Chariot Jubilee, even pays tribute to the opening of the Ninth Symphony’s Largo in its introductory chords. Originally composed for tenor, chorus and organ, the orchestration by Hale Smith was commissioned on behalf of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra by Benjamin Roe, who now serves as Managing Producer for Music and Performance at WGBH, and as a member of the Landmarks Orchestra’s Board of Overseers. Read Matthew Guerrieri’s article about The Chariot Jubilee from this past Sunday’s Boston Globe here:

The spirituals are folk music and cannot be attributed to any single composer. On the other hand, the individual arrangers – going back to Burleigh and before – are identifiable, and they play a crucial role. They are the curators of this trove of sacred songs. John Andrew Ross, a graduate of the Boston Public Schools and of Boston University, created the present memorable setting of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” Ross served from 1970 as music director at the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts, and was well known locally as the musical director of the gospel play Black Nativity by Langston Hughes.

The New England Spiritual Ensemble is comprised of leading professional vocal artists in Boston, many of whom simultaneously pursue careers in non-musical fields. To honor this favorite collaborator, the Landmarks Orchestra commissioned composer Trevor Weston to write a work for both organizations based on the spirituals. For this performance, the orchestra has, for the first time, assembled the One City Junior Choir, in the spirit of the orchestra’s One City Choir. Our thanks to all the choir directors, parents, volunteers and staff who have helped in the formation of this new group.

Dr. Weston writes about his new work:

“Griots are West African performers who preserve and communicate the history of their communities through songs. Africans brought to America during the Atlantic Slave trade continued to communicate and share their experiences through song. Starting in the 19th century, Spirituals emerged as a uniquely American musical genre as Africans, converted to Christianity, created songs that commented on their experiences through Christian stories and doctrine.

“Griot Legacies celebrates the diversity and power of African American Spirituals.
The first movement emanates from a 1960 recording of an 84-year-old man singing “Run to Jesus for Refuge,” a piece he undoubtedly learned from people born into slavery. The second movement, “Lord, How Come Me Here,” explores the existential questions sometimes found in spirituals. This piece fundamentally asks the question, “Why?” Many spirituals were created to console and support individuals as the third movement demonstrates. “There is a Balm” imagines a better existence where the problems of the second movement are healed. The last movement celebrates the defiant nature of some spirituals. The sometimes-humorous verses of “I Got Shoes” flaunt the ownership of robes, shoes, etc., as a demonstration of individual agency during a period when ownership was denied to many African Americans. Triumph over adversity is a common theme in the American Dream and fundamental to the aspirational nature of African American Spirituals.”

-Christopher Wilkins

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