The belated excavation of black classical music continues apace. A submerged chapter of American cultural history, more eventful than heretofore imagined, is swiftly generating performances, recordings and scholarly attention. The exercise is long overdue and emotions run high. But until the topography clarifies, stepping back to separate novelties from peak creative achievements will be a challenging and even controversial task. That said, a raft of recent performances argues that William Levi Dawson’s “Negro Folk Symphony” of 1932 is an overwhelming candidate for the top American symphonic pantheon. And Harry Burleigh’s “Lovely Dark and Lonely One,” composed three years later, may be credibly judged one of the most memorable of all American concert songs.
Burleigh (1866-1949) is the pivotal figure in the transformation of the spirituals of the American South into solo concert songs. You might even say that black classical music begins with the five versions of “Deep River,” for solo voice or chorus, that Burleigh created between 1913 and 1917. Their impact was electrifying.