The legendary voices of Martin Luther King Day
In 1871, the newly-formed Jubilee Singers of Fisk University embarked on an eighteen-month concert tour to raise funds for their financially-strapped institution. Starting in Cincinnati, and continuing through the major cities of the north and east, including a performance at the White House for President Ulysses S. Grant, the Jubilee Singers enraptured their audiences with arrangements of sacred songs familiar in black communities, but then little-known among the general population. Through their tour and the 1872 publication of Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, the Jubilee Singers led America to the wellspring of African-American sacred melody, one which flows to this day: the spiritual.
From then on, these melodies have been arranged and performed in countless ways by musicians of practically every genre, including, of course, classical. Every year on Martin Luther King Day, WFCR presents a medley of spirituals sung by great black voices of past and present, among whom are numbered some of the earliest classical singers to include the songs in their concert repertoire. Here are some of these pioneers of the classical spiritual.
Shortly after becoming director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, the great Czech composer Antonín Dvořák employed a 17-year old scholarship student from Erie, Pennsylvania as his music copyist. While Dvořák was not included among young Harry T. Burleigh's teachers, the composer learned much from his assistant, who would sing spirituals to himself while engaged in the menial tasks that helped Burleigh earn his scholarship. These melodies, which Dvořák invited Burleigh to sing over supper, inspired the spiritual-like themes of the "New World" Symphony, a work which started a new epoch of indigenous American classical music. After graduation, Harry T. Burleigh went on to a lengthy and productive career as a singer, composer and arranger. Indeed, his arrangements of spirituals are still among the most often performed by classical singers. We'll hear his voice in a 1917 recording of "Go Down, Moses" in today's medley.
A student at Fisk University and member of the Jubilee Singers, Roland Hayes (left) became the first African-American classical singer to attain international acclaim. A tenor of elegance and refinement, Hayes did not record until his fifties, so we'll never hear what he sounded like at his peak. But the recordings he made over the next 20 years, especially of what he called "Aframerican religious folk songs" form a treasurable part of the discography of American singing. A native of Norfolk, Virginia and graduate of the Hampton Institute, soprano Dorothy Maynor (right) received her initial acclaim singing at the invitation of Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Serge Koussevitzky at Tanglewood in 1939. Though her race prevented her from singing in operatic performances, as it had for other African-Americans, Maynor enjoyed great success as a concert and recital singer. In the year following her retirement from performance in 1963, Maynor founded the Harlem School for the Arts, which under her leadership grew from 20 students to over 1,000.
Finally, we include a pair of singers who transcend music and race to take their place among the icons of 20th-century American history: Paul Robeson (left) and Marian Anderson (right). Together with the other singers pictured above, living legend Leontyne Price, and such contemporary talents as Jessye Norman, Denyce Graves, Derek Lee Ragin, Angela Brown and Kevin Maynor, these two fathomlessly deep voices will be our guides through our annual festival spirituals in honor of Dr. King, coming up in the 2:00 hour Monday afternoon. I hope you can tune in.