Harry T. Burleigh's "Ethiopia Saluting the Colors" and Harlem Renaissance musical debates
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Scholars are only beginning to investigate in detail the developments that took place in musical expressions of the Harlem Renaissance during the first two decades of the twentieth century. One neglected area is the intersection between art, popular, and folk styles that resulted from the arrangement of nineteenth-century African American spirituals as piano-and-voice art songs. The most prominent attempts to do this, such as by Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949, fl. 1890s-1930s), occurred during an era when musical endeavors by African Americans were subject to intense scrutiny over how musical strategies served social and political agendas. Younger artists, such as Zora Neale Hurston, frustrated with continued dependence on European-derived musical ideals, reacted strongly against Burleigh's formal art song settings of spirituals. Burleigh's style also fit uneasily with the mainstream vision of Harlem Renaissance musical goals. Writers such as Alain Locke saw the importance of the spirituals as tied to their choral expression. This mode of performance reflected the spirituals' communal origins while also functioning as an appropriately large-scale compositional ideal. Solo voice and piano arrangements of spirituals were thus viewed as limited in their applicability to the movement's musical priorities. Since the early 1990s, scholars have made inroads towards exploring Burleigh's music. Studies by Anne Key Simpson and Jean E. Snyder have addressed important aspects of Burleigh's compositional approach. My aim here is to look more in-depth at how Burleigh negotiated the competing and contradictory demands of Harlem Renaissance musical discourse. Considering Burleigh's compositions in conjunction with the texts he set, and the historical circumstances of their origins, may also call into question the political labels attached to his compositional approach. In the interest of engaging Burleigh's music with a degree of detail missing from more comprehensive studies of his music, this thesis will primarily address a single example--"Ethiopia Saluting the Colors" (1915), a setting of Walt Whitman's 1867 poem. Previous studies have referred to "Ethiopia" in passing as an uncomplicated example of one of Burleigh's art songs; however, the presence of devices derived from folk (minor pentatonic scale), popular (humorous, Ivesian quotations of the song "Marching Through Georgia"), and art (motivic development) practices has not been explored in depth. In its combination of these devices, "Ethiopia" demonstrates Burleigh's negotiation of the cultural divisions that defined the musical Harlem Renaissance.