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The Stories We Tell, The Stories We Want to Hear: Writing Biography

Updated: Dec 30, 2022

The best advice: always. back. up. your. work. Which is what I didn’t do before the Burleigh Society website was revamped, and a good portion of my blog posts went to the digital afterlife.

For the rest of this year, I’m going to do my best to cobble together what posts I had the sense to write in a doc, then copy & paste in the web program. First up are my thoughts on anecdotes in studies of Black composers; enjoy!

Originally published on Harry T. Burleigh Society Blog (2017-2019)

The year is 1943. Harry T. Burleigh has finally completed his letter to Florence Price, taking him around two weeks to write. The document contains many topics, most notably Burleigh’s receipt and forwarding of Price’s art songs to J. Ricordi and Co. The publishing company declined the pieces, but Burleigh continues with his own thoughts on Price’s compositions:

“Personally, I consider the third song “I know why the caged bird sings” a great setting of those words and melodically effective and dramatic and only in one or two spots does it appear too chromatic – (perhaps the second verse – and even there it is in the look of the accidentals, rather than the sound).”

It’s unclear how Price responded (if the hard copy letter still exists). Was she miffed that Burleigh forwarded her pieces without her permission? Appreciative? Did she apply changes to the “too chromatic” areas or keep them as is? How might Burleigh’s comment help us understand their differing approaches to setting poetry and arranging spirituals?

I open with this anecdote because these are the types of details, the types of stories, that I love to read. Stories that answer important questions: which composers wrote each other? What did they talk about? Were they colleagues or dear friends? Did they know each other for decades or a few years? These stories reemphasize the human reality of these individuals, sometimes lost when people transform from flesh and blood to memory, when their lives may only be illuminated in the extant materials and oral and written histories. The historical figures breathed, moved, disagreed; and remind me what I need from histories of classical composers of color: a shift from the static, immovable marble of traditional narratives to an in-process quilt full of colors, patterns, and textures building new images from basic elements.

But it must be acknowledged that studies of Black classical composers still need a larger collection of published biographies and analytic studies. Burleigh has a few book-length monographs; but Price’s first full length monograph was published in summer 2019, ten years after the book-length biography on composer Zenobia Powell Perry was published. William Grant Still is perhaps the most published of historical Black composers, thanks in no small part to the fierce preservation work by Still himself, family members, performers, and scholars during his lifetime.

The biography genre has received needed critique and reflection these last few years. And yet one of the purposes of biography–telling the reader when and where the subject in question studied, composed, and got their music performed throughout their career–is still sorely needed in basic narratives of predominately Black classical music communities. We need to know Burleigh’s career path put him into contact and friendship with major American figures (Marian Anderson, Roland Hayes, etc.); that he was a supporter and competition judge for the National Association of Negro Musicians, Inc., the largest organizations for Black classical musicians in the United States. Such information helps us understand Burleigh’s perspective on mentorship, networking, and civic organization. For him, it was not solely getting his music performed and being able to perform himself. He fostered relationships with fellow musicians to grow his artistry and set a standard for younger Black musicians considering a performing and composing career.

So; how may Burleigh’s letter illuminate other aspects of Burleigh’s and Price’s musical work? First, it can help us in our construction of their stylistic differences; chromaticism was not anathema to Burleigh, but if we study his use of chromaticism throughout his art songs, will we see a similar application as we may see in Price’s? If we consider the dramatic shifts of character Price achieves in this piece through her use of chromaticism, vocal range, and dynamics, how does this set her apart from the tools Burleigh used to highlight changes in mood and transitions between sections? These questions were brought forth by putting this one piece of correspondence in conversation with the biographical details of each composer; if so many questions may be spurred by one letter, what other questions may we develop and answer through other materials, other anecdotes?

The standard biography for classical composers does not work for every potential subject. Even if it does, it should not be the only narrative form we use (see Alejandro Madrid’s sparkling bio on composer Tania León). We will always need the basic elements of contextualization, but we cannot allow these individuals and their work to be understood as frozen in time or set on pedestals with no chance for critical engagement, imagination, speculation, and re-evaluation.


Letter from Harry T. Burleigh to Florence B. Price, 1943, Florence Price Papers Addendum, Special Collections University of Arkansas–Fayetteville

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