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Dvořák in America

Many music lovers know that when Antonín Dvořák visited America to lead the National Conservatory in New York, he fell in love with the diverse cultures and music he encountered. This eventually led to him writing his landmark New World Symphony. But how was he introduced to the spirituals and folk songs that infused his music during this period?

Antonín Dvořák
Composer Antonín Dvořák

It turns out he heard a lot of them from an African American music student. Henry Thacker Burleigh had already made a name for himself as an excellent singer by the time he was admitted to the Conservatory. His first music teacher was his grandfather, a formerly enslaved man who had gained his freedom and moved to the North.

Burleigh’s scholarship wasn’t enough to cover his tuition, so he supported himself by doing maintenance and cleaning. Sitting in his office, Dvořák became fascinated by the songs he heard from the janitor cleaning the floors, and he invited Burleigh to share this music with him. Over the following months, the two developed a friendship as Dvořák absorbed the spirituals and Black folk songs Burleigh had learned from his grandfather, family, and community.

Henry Thacker Burleigh
Composer and Baritone Harry Burleigh

Soon, these sounds began working their way into Dvořák’s own music (albeit with his own distinctly Czech accent!). Works like his New World Symphony and the American String Quartet used melodies that were clearly inspired by the songs he was taught by a cleaning man who had, in turn, learned them from his formerly enslaved grandfather.

Burleigh went on to become a highly-respected singer and composer in his own right. He was hired as the baritone soloist at several prominent New York churches and synagogues, including St. George’s Episcopal Church and Temple Emanu-El.

His music became extremely popular. In particular, his arrangements of spirituals and folk songs grew to be nearly omnipresent on American concert programs.

At our May concert, we celebrate the legacy of this great musician by performing From the Southland, composed in 1916. In the six movements of this suite, Burleigh’s own melodies interact with tunes you’ll likely find familiar, including “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and “Swanee River.”

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