There’s a weird, pleasant intimacy in the story of the brief friendship, if friendship it was, between the composer Antonin Dvorak and his student Henry Thacker Burleigh. Maybe acquaintance is the better way to say it. Mentorship. Cultural exchange. Crossing-of-the-paths.
I’ll leave the words to you. For now, a scene:
I want to say that Dvorak’s rooms at the Conservatory would be messy. A thin white covering of dust holding the contents of the office together, like a skin: decaying songbooks, the master’s viola, sketches (musical, visual), family photographs, long letters from the Bohemian countryside whose folk material Dvorak had already begun to sublimate into a cherished national music. On some small table would sit a round, squat Tiffany-style lamp in faded colors; a short rocks glass somewhere near.
In my mind the session happens in spring, and sun juts into the room in fat angled bars. Specks of dust float, visible, between moments of light.
The two men enter together. After a coda to spoken pleasantries — Dvorak’s thick, accented grunts; Burleigh’s baritone, still awe-tinged — the older man sits on the only perfectly clear surface in the room: his piano bench, polished by constant use. He grins and waits expectantly.
Burleigh clasps his hands, closes his eyes, and thinks of home. He draws a breath and begins to sing.
Dvorak came from Europe to New York to lead the National Conservatory of Music of America in 1892, drawn, seemingly, by the customary attractions: money and renown, novelty and relative freedom. But there was more to commend the trip — another, loftier ambition, shared by the press and patrons who awaited the composer on our shores. One of the great obsessions of the Gilded Age musical elite (and, specifically, of Jeanette Thurber, founder of the National Conservatory, by whose exertions Dvorak’s contract was signed) was the creation of a uniquely American school of composition — the kind of national music Dvorak had already invented, to pan-European acclaim, for the Czechs.
Dvorak understood — and relished, I think — his charge. In a letter to a friend written shortly after his arrival in the States, he bragged that “America is awaiting great things from me, and mainly that I show them the way to the Promised Land and the realm of a new independent art: in short, to create [an American] national music.”
As legend has it (and as Michael Beckerman dutifully outlines in his great book New Worlds of Dvorak: Searching in America for the Composer’s Inner Life), Dvorak arrived at an almost immediate decision as to the source of this American style: the “Negro melodies” of the South.
On the subject of these tunes he was prone to grand pronouncements. For example, this:
I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them.
And along, sometime soon after this determination, came Henry “Harry” Burleigh, grandson of a slave and therefore inheritor of countless field hollers and old plantation songs.
While the facts of their first meeting are lost to time, it’s clear that the pair became fast friends, the young Burleigh going to visit Dvorak almost daily to satisfy the master’s requests for impromptu renditions of “Go Down, Moses” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and whatever else might suit his fancy. Dvorak listened closely and affectionately, taking particular interest in the five-note scale and flattened “blue” notes that characterized the music, and, indeed, would later come to characterize his famous New World Symphony, as well as the two “American” chamber works — a quartet and a quintet — that he wrote while on retreat in Spillville, Iowa.
Burleigh understood — and, again, relished — his contribution to Dvorak’s great achievement. This is what he later wrote:
There is a tendency in these days to ignore the negro elements in the “New World” Symphony, shown by the fact that many of those who were able in 1893 to find traces of negro musical color all through [it]…now cannot find anything in the whole four movements that suggests any local or negro influence…
…It was my privilege to repeatedly sing some of the old Plantation songs for [Dvorak] at his home in E. 17th St. and one in particular, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” greatly pleased him, and part of this old Spiritual will be found in the second theme of the first movement of the Symphony…
…I have never publicly been credited with exerting any influence upon Dr. Dvorak, although it is tacitly believed that there isn’t much doubt about it, for I was with him almost constantly, and he loved to hear me sing the old melodies.
Burleigh went on to become the country’s foremost arranger, and promoter, of Negro spirituals — helping them take their current place within the mainstream American songbook — and a phenomenally popular arranger of art songs.
Dvorak’s regard for the importance of folkloric sources was shared, decades later, by several black writers, including Zora Neale Hurston — perhaps America’s greatest folklorist — and Ralph Ellison, who in Invisible Man demonstrated how “low” material could be spun upwards, into the sublime. In his long 1955 interview with the Paris Review (a perfect document, one that shows the writer at his most erudite and most irritating) Ellison expounded on the primacy of the fable:
The clue to [the specific forms of Negro humanity] can be found in folklore, which offers the first drawings of any group’s character. It preserves mainly those situations which have repeated themselves again and again in the history of any given group. It describes those rites, manners, customs, and so forth, which insure the good life, or destroy it; and it describes those boundaries of feeling, thought, and action which that particular group has found to be the limitation of the human condition…
…These drawings may be crude, but they are nonetheless profound in that they represent the group’s attempt to humanize the world. It’s no accident that great literature, the product of individual artists, is erected upon this humble base. The hero of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground and the hero of Gogol’s “The Overcoat” appear in their rudimentary forms far back in Russian folklore.
John Mack Ousley, dead for years now, had a fist as big and as heavy, and roughly as round, as a shot put. The fist, like the man, was a tanned white, liver-spotted, tufted with individual-minded brownish-blonde hairs, and often the fist found itself lodged in the space between my navel and my sternum, in search of a diaphragm offering equal and opposite force. John Mack was a big, tough-sounding guy, kielbasas for fingers, walker-bound, Waco-bred, joyful in the presence of beauty, or of true effort, irritable if the lesson had started too late, or was running too long, or you hadn’t bothered to remember to bring your tape recorder. Waste of time, he’d say.
Like every interesting person I’ve ever met in New York, John Mack was a hybrid animal, a species of one: basically a weirdo. Where else could you find a big-bottomed, bespectacled Texan who gave voice lessons on the Upper West Side?
John Mack, who spoke like a river toad and sang like the Holy Ghost, had the dubious task of teaching me to sing, and like the violent in Matthew’s Gospel, he took the task away by force.
Push! he’d yell with that left fist in my stomach, his right hand fingering a chord. Sing the damn song!
I can’t remember exactly when it was that I started working with John Mack, but I think it had something to do with Handel’s Messiah. This was high school junior year, fifteen going on sixteen, and I’d been given a longish solo in the holiday classic. First, the heartening recitative, “For Behold, Darkness Hath Covered the Earth,” and its actually relatively cheerful sister aria, “The People That Walked in Darkness.” A dose of apocalyptic Isaiah amid otherwise joyful tidings; a sung shadow with its arm stretched toward the light. This kind of minor-key drudge is just what you get when you’re an adolescent second bass, but, let’s face it, there’s an added bit of comedy when the rare black glee-clubber steps out from among the crowd and starts ranting on about dark this and dark that.
Anyway, John Mack had long been on retainer at my high school, and so when I won the solos I was sent by our conductor, first thing, down to his apartment on 71st Street, just off Broadway. He’d round out my tone, clean up a muddy melisma here or there. I guess it had to be sometime in the fall. His apartment was a one-bedroom spectacle of shadow and dust. There were scores everywhere, probably teeming with ancient, invisible scarabs: any opera or art song you wanted, dog-eared and marked up, frayed to fuzz and up-curled at the corners. The books — on chairs, the counter, the table; in piles atop the upright piano — are all I can remember about the place. I’m trying and failing to recall a window.
Once the Handel concert was over — a moderate success, he thought — we moved on to the larger songbook, and this was where John Mack shone.
(Always John Mack, by the way, never John. As in: Yes, John Mack, or, Thank you, John Mack, or, Yeah, I’m sorry, John Mack, I did forget my recorder again.)
He’d been a beautiful opera singer in his day, Juilliard-trained, appearances all over the world. So he knew his stuff, and he had a pragmatic approach to what he thought I should spend my time singing.
Nice young black kid like you, he’d say often, smacking me on the arm, laughing up a low static wall of phlegm. Yeah, you could be a Porgy.
And Porgy it was. “I’ve Got Plenty of Nothin’,” over and over until it rang in my ears at night, until it bled out of my nose and gathered in an audible pool on John Mack’s dusty floor. I wasn’t just sick of Porgy: I was post-sick. I had waved the white flag of surrender to Porgy and begun to regard the singing simpleton as my god. Porgy had won, and so, by extension, had John Mack.
Trust me, he’d say. That’s gonna be your role someday.
But sometimes even John Mack got tired of hearing me sing “I’ve Got Plenty,” especially after he’d heard me deliver it at a senior-year recital (That was a piece of singing you just did, he said when he saw me after the show. That’s your role.). Those nights, he’d pick random numbers from the bass repertoire, teach them to me, tell me to sit with them at home. Only a few would ever materialize again, though, and of these his favorite, by far, was “Goin’ Home,” a spiritual-esque written to the tune of the famous second movement of the “New World.”
I’d sing Dvorak’s melody over John Mack’s blocky, chord-wise accompaniment, and no matter how well or poorly I was singing that night, there was never a Push! or a Sing! He always let me sing it straight through. When I was done, he’d stop, close his eyes, nod.
Now that, he’d say after a while, is a goddamned pretty song.
It is an excruciatingly intimate thing to sing a song to an audience of one. And so when Burleigh finishes the song — “Swing Low,” let’s say, for old time’s sake — I imagine a mutual silence: short, slightly embarrassed.
Soon Dvorak clears his throat and maybe claps.