I have powerful memories of my childhood listening to music with my family. After dinner, my brother would dig into the LP collection and put on a favorite classical piece, like the Tschaikovsky piano concerto, or Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, or Dvořák’s New World Symphony. I later learned the melody I loved so much in that last work was from an African-American spiritual called “Goin’ Home.”
But Dvořák was Czech - how did he know that melody?
In the 1890’s a young black singer/composer named Harry T. Burleigh won a scholarship to study at the newly opened National Conservatory of Music, near Stuyvesant Square in NYC. To earn extra money he did odd jobs around the school. He sang spirituals as he worked, which caught the ear of Dvořák, the school's director. “Goin’ Home” was the first spiritual ever used in a symphonic work!
H.T. Burleigh later became a renowned arranger and compiler of black spirituals. His arrangements have been sung by the greatest classical singers of our time. Next week I’ll tell you the story of Harry Burleigh’s career as a choral singer in NYC. In the meantime, this weekend may be just the perfect time to take the earbuds out, turn up the volume and listen with family and friends to great music together.