Harlem Boys Choir carries on 'singular spiritual legacy'

Glenn McNatt

January 08, 1991|By Glenn McNatt

LITTLE OF beauty has America given the world," the scholar W. E. B. DuBois wrote in 1903, "save the rude grandeur God himself stamped on her bosom; the human spirit in this new world has expressed itself in vigor and ingenuity rather than in beauty. And so by fateful chance the Negro folk-song -- the rhythmic cry of the slave -- stands today not simply as the sole AmeriGlennMcNattcan music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas."

I was reminded of DuBois' words, which are contained in the final chapter of his little book, "The Souls of Black Folk," last week when I attended a concert by the Boys Choir of Harlem at Baltimore's Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

The choir, one of the finest of its type in the country, received a glowing review from The Evening Sun's Ernest Imhoff, who noted that its repertory spanned works by composers from Mozart to Ellington. But to me, the most moving part of the performance was a rendition of two spirituals, "Daniel, Daniel, Servant of the Lord" and "Fix Me."

In notes accompanying her 1983 recording, "Negro Spirituals," opera star Barbara Hendricks characterized this music in terms remarkably similar to DuBois. "Negro spirituals," Hendricks wrote, "are the creation of a people possessing a variety of tribal customs and languages, held under an extremely harsh system of slavery and cut off from their native cultures and languages, having been dispersed without any regard for tribal or family relations and forced to adjust to a foreign civilization and language.

"The African brought with him to his new land a rich musical heritage, unique in its rhythmical quality as well as in its intervallic structure and form. This was fused with the new-found knowledge of Christianity, for the slave completely embraced this religion of reversal and compensation in Heaven for the injustices and trials suffered on earth."

The Czech composer Antonin Dvorak was one of the first European masters to acknowledge the importance of African-American song. When Dvorak arrived in America at the turn of the century to become head of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, he pronounced it his opinion that the only truly American music was to be found in that of the former slaves.

Dvorak was particularly struck by the characteristic pentatonic scale of African-American music (which can be approximated by sounding the five black keys on the piano keyboard), and he deliberately incorporated themes built around these tones in many of the works he composed during his stay in the United States, including the famous "Symphony from the New World."

Dvorak also met and was influenced by the great black baritone singer Harry T. Burleigh, who was among the first to arrange spirituals in the style of the art song, thereby carrying on in America the nationalistic traditions already fostered in Europe by such composers as Brahms and Dvorak himself.

Though spirituals were sung in America long before Emancipation, it was not until 1871 that they were heard on the concert stage. In that year George L. White, the treasurer of newly founded Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., organized a group of student singers to tour the United States and Europe in order to raise money for the school. White called his choir the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and after a round of concerts that included command performances before the crowned heads of Europe, the group returned home with the princely sum of $150,000 for Fisk.

Since then, many dedicated musicians have labored to keep alive and expand the musical traditions embodied in the spirituals. Hall Johnson and William Levi Dawson collected and arranged a veritable storehouse of melodies for posterity. Other important contributors were John Work of Fisk University and R. Nathaniel Dett at Hampton Institute, the brothers J. Rosamond and J. Weldon Johnson, and Roland Hayes, the first black American performer of European art song on the concert stage.

It is this rich musical heritage that modern performers like the Boys Choir of Harlem are heir to. It is a tradition that survives today not only in concert but as part of the musical tapestry of such TV and motion picture productions as the recent PBS television series "The Civil War" and the movie "Glory," about the black soldiers who fought and died in that conflict. The Harlem Boys choir actually recorded part of the soundtrack for the latter.

Nearly a century has passed since DuBois set down his assessment of the place of African-American song in our national life, yet his words ring as true today as they did in 1903: Negro folk song, DuBois wrote, "has been neglected, it has been, and is, half despised, and above all it has been persistently mistaken and misunderstood; but notwithstanding, it still remains as the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people."

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