“Deep River”: Celebrating the “Art of the Spiritual” at National Cathedral

Celebrating the final day of Black History Month, the National Cathedral showcased the African American Spiritual as one of the great art music forms of American Culture, in a concert commemorating composer Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949). In collaboration with the Postclassical Ensemble, the program, entitled “Deep River, The Art of the Spiritual,” paid tribute to one of the most instrumental figures in the early 19th century who brought Spirituals into the concert hall, not only as art songs, but as a soulful expression of the hope and sorrow of the enslaved Africans crying out for freedom.

Harry T. Burleigh was pivotal in bringing the Spiritual to the concert stage, leading the way for other great interpretations by Roland Hayes, Marion Anderson, Paul Robeson, Leontyne Price, Jesse Norman, Katheleen Battle and many other concert singers through the decades.

The concert of solo and chorale performances tribute to Harry T. Burleigh enthralled the capacity filled Cathedral audience. In a dramatic entrance, bass-baritone Kevin Deas’ voice could be heard from the back of the cathedral as he walked up the aisle to the nave to join the other performers singing a cappella “Sinner Don’t Let the Harvest Pass” His rich oratorio-like voice beautifully set the tone for the depth and breadth of this musical event.

One of America’s leading bass-baritones, Deas transported the audience to a time-past, when music was the spiritual bond that gave an enslaved people hope for a better time.

Mr. Deas was joined by pianist Joseph Horowitz, Executive Director of the PCE, in performing “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “Steal Away.” Mr. Horowitz’ accompaniment displayed the harmonic complexities and musical richness of the pieces, raising the question whether Burleigh simply arranged these renditions of the Spirituals or did he in fact create a new composition inspired by the Spiritual.

The concert also featured other composers who similarly brought the Spiritual into the sphere of the concert stage. PCE Conductor and Music Director, Angel Gil-Ordonez, led the National Cathedral Choir in choral arrangements of the Spirituals of Nathaniel Dett’s “O Holy God,” Moses Hogan’s “Ezekiel Saw de Wheel,” and William Dawson’s “There is a Balm in Gilead.” The choir, under the masterful direction of Conductor Gil-Ordonez, transmitted the very bold and expressive interpretations of these pieces.

Media artist, Peter Bogdanoff created a visual presentation following the narrative of Harry T. Burleigh’s artistic life. The video, displayed on TV screens throughout the cathedral, revealed to the audience actual recordings of Harry T. Burleigh as well as depictions of the many artists he influenced, including Antonin Dvorak.

As mezzo-soprano Kehembe Echelberger (herself an authority on the Spiritual), commented, Burleigh was instrumental in teaching the Spirituals to the great Czech composer Antonin Dvorak. Indeed, it was Dvorak who proclaimed that this body of music was the foundation of an American School of Music. Notwithstanding the great significance of Dvorak’s acknowledgement, it was also reflective of the dilemma of African American composers of the 19th century who, in order to have acceptance from American audiences, required the approval of the European music establishment.

Yet, the Post Classical Ensemble’s mission to pursue “the advocacy of music as an instrument for human betterment” appears to have been fulfilled in the programming selection of the African American spiritual as a major influence on composers of other ethnic origins, such as Antonin Dvorak, who lived for some time in the USA and who often referenced the Spiritual as the truly original American Music and the inspiration for a great school of American composers of the future. The performance of various settings of Spirituals by composers Michael Tippet, Gerre Hancock, and Bob Chilcott were reflective of this historical linkage.

The program concluded with arrangements of the same Spiritual “Deep River” by Angel-Gil Ordonnez and by Harry T Burleigh. The dramatic finale was the performance of “Going Home” by William Arms Fisher after Dvorak and arranged by Michael McCarthy, performed by the National Cathedral Choir, and Choristers from the Metropolitan AME Church, Woodrow Wilson High School, Oakland Mills High School, Long Reach High School, and Wild Lake High School.

Canon Michael McCarthy made a revealing statement in the panel discussion following the concert, commenting that they had taken a chance in deciding to have the solo and choral works of the Spirituals by Harry T Burleigh performed by the Cathedral Choir. In essence, the music that was passed down from the generations of enslaved Africans in America has continued to inspire artists of every ethnic origin and are enjoyed by audiences throughout the world as the beautiful art songs that they are. This reality is set in the paradox of American history in which a great artist such as Harry T. Burleigh could not be interred in New York, in the city where he lived for decades, because in 1949 no Black American could be interred in that city. 

The music historian Dominique Rene de Lerma conveyed how remarkable a person Burleigh was. In 1892, Burleigh sought admission to the National Conservatory of Music but was denied. At a later time, he was observed listening to a musicale by the great Venezuelan pianist Teresa Careno at the home of Elizabeth Russell. He was invited by the hostess to come in out of the snow to hear the music but had to accept the humiliation that he was present “in service” posing as a doorman and could not be a guest because of his race. It was at this event that he met Francis Knapp MacDowell, mother of the composer Edward MacDowell, who was instrumental in having Harry T Burleigh re-apply to the National Conservatory and admitted with a scholarship. In 1895, when New York State Governor Morton signed a State Civil Rights Bill, Burleigh, along with a small group of other distinguished citizens, tested being served in 25 New York City restaurants. As a teacher, Burleigh was a vocal coach to Enrico Caruso, Roland Hayes, Marion Anderson, and Paul Robeson.

Canon McCarthy’s statement reflects the import of the racial dynamics that are frequently interjected when the Spiritual’s place in American cultural history is discussed. Indeed, this concert deserves to be recognized as a celebration of the Spiritual as the art form that it has been since it flowed from the hearts of enslaved Africans.

The legendary tenor Roland Hayes, who is often described as one of the greatest exponents of the Spiritual as an art song (which he performed alongside German, French and Italian art songs), stated in 1948, “The Africans [which were] captured for the southern plantations, brought with them from many parts of Africa, their various cultures, a skill and creative power. Being creators, these transplanted Africans fused their American experiences and their native gifts and produced a new art – the ‘Aframerican’ religious folk song, the ‘Spiritual’.” 

At a time in history when the Spiritual solo and choral music tradition has been often eclipsed by other genres, this concert has served to preserve one of the most precious jewels in American music history. While musical tastes may change, the settings of Spirituals by composers Harry T Burleigh, Roland Hayes, John Work, Edward Boatner and others should be treasured, not only as an art form but as the language of the soul yearning for freedom.

In the words of the Spiritual,

Deep river — my home is over Jordan, 
Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground. 
Don’t you want to go to that Gospel feast, 
That promised land where all is peace. 
Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.



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