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Spirituals, Rags and Strings in Brooklyn...

posted May 5, 2012, 3:39 PM by Steven Vaughan
In 1892, Henry “Harry” Thacker Burleigh became one of the first African-American students admitted into the  National Conservatory of Music, located here in New York City in two brownstones on East 17th Street.  It was modeled after the Paris Conservatory in the hopes of fostering American composers with a “national musical spirit.”  As a pupil, Burleigh successfully introduced Anglo-European classically-trained artists to spirituals by arranging them in a more classical form. 

The visiting director of the National Conservatory at this time was Czech composer Antonín Dvořák.   Dvořák had previously employed in his compositions the idioms of his native Moravian and Bohemian folk music, causing his style to sometimes be referred to as “romantic-classicist synthesis.”  Upon his arrival in the United States, he became interested and inspired by both Native American music and Burleigh's singing of African-American spirituals.  So much so, that when the New York Philharmonic commissioned him to compose a symphony, he stated “These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil.  They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them.”  His resulting Symphony No. 9 in E Minor “From the New World,” Op. 95 (popularly known as the New World Symphony) is by far his most well-known, and one of the favorites in the modern repertoire.  The theme from its second, or Largo movement, was adapted by another one of his pupils into a spiritual-like hymn, Goin' Home, and was performed at the funerals of both Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Gerald Ford; as well as those for firefighters or  military personnel.   

This Wednesday, May 9, at 7:00 pm, the Brooklyn Phil Chamber Players team up with poet Tyehimba Jess in the Brooklyn Central Public Library's  Dweck Center for Contemporary Culture to present a free concert that imagines these artists' lives and stories, spinning out the legacy of this first link between African-American music and the symphonic tradition.  If you're unable to attend, give your iPod a rest and listen to a recording of either some spirituals or Dvořák's symphony...
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