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Did Dvorak Compose “Deep River”?

Though there are some historians of American music who dispute the crucial importance of Dvorak, and many more who simply ignore him, that the impact of his short American sojourn (1892-1895) remains incalculable was driven home afresh during the recent “Dvorak and America” NEH teacher-training institute in Pittsburgh.
After World War I, the iconic American spiritual was “Deep River.” The person mainly responsible for that was Dvorak’s one-time African-American assistant Harry Burleigh. Burleigh’s version of “Deep River” was in fact half-Dvorak. Without the example of the New World Symphony, it would not have existed.
Backing up: Thanks to Wayne Shirley’s exemplary history of “Deep River” (American Music, Winter 1997), I know that when the Fisk Jubilee Singers toured with this song after the Civil War, it was a relatively upbeat number. It was Burleigh who influentially slowed it down into a reverent, “timeless” hymn. This happened in 1913, when Burleigh arranged it for mixed a cappella chorus, and again in 1916, when he arranged it for solo singer and piano.
These Burleigh arrangements were historic. Before that, writes Wayne, a “mainly white mixed chorus of the period” would never sing a spiritual. “Burleigh’s choral arrangements . . . freed the spiritual for performance by choruses in general. . . . In Burleigh’s ‘Deep River’ we hear for the first time the full Dvorakian panoply of late nineteenth-century harmony applied to a mixed-chorus arrangement of a spiritual ; we also hear for the first time a spiritual arrangement using moderately complex choral textures.”
Nor, before Burleigh, would a solo singer, white or black, commonly sing spirituals with piano accompaniment. Wayne: “The runaway popularity of ‘Deep River’ in 1916-1917 did more than establish the tune, specifically Burleigh’s version of the tune, in the public consciousness. It also changed the public attitude toward solo-voice versions of spirituals as part of the concert repertory. . . . It was ‘Deep River’ that made it thinkable for spirituals to appear on a mainstream vocal recital – rapt singer standing in front of piano, attentive accompanist playing from the notes.”
But that is not all. Though Wayne’s article feints towards Dvorak’s Largo (which so acutely resembles Burleigh’s “Deep River” in tempo and tone), Wayne (who normally knows all things) had neglected to look at Burleigh’s male chorus a cappella arrangement of “Deep River.” Thanks to the Burleigh scholar Jean Snyder, we discovered at the Dvorak institute that this version – unlike the one for mixed chorus (i.e., men and women both) – begins and ends with a stately chordal episode mimicking the beginning and end of Dvorak’s Largo. It makes explicit Burleigh’s conflation of “Deep River” with Dvorak – the result of which was “Deep River” as we now know it.
The trajectory from the Fisk Singers to Dvorak to Burleigh leads onward to Roland Hayes, Marian Anderson, and Paul Robeson. Dvorak – the Bohemian visitor for whom “Negro melodies” signified the future of American music – is a vital part of this narrative. It would have happened differently without him.
Try absorbing that. Amazing.


  1. Michael Beckerman says

    Did Anton Seidl Compose Deep River?
    Yo Joe, remember that this “stately” introductory episode got its slowness mojo from Seidl, who kept slowing it down (witnes Dvorak’s crossed out tempo marking in the ms.). So actually it was a partnership Burleigh-Dvorak-Seidl who slowed down and “invented” Deep River. And it figures in another way, since many had come to believe that spirituals were not only “expressive” music but the *most* expressive music, relating to its purported origins in slavery and the Plantation song. Considering the close relationship between slowness and expression, it’s no wonder “Deep River” slowed down.
    Also, as far as Burleigh/Dvorak is concerned, it’s clear that Burleigh quotes Dvorak in his arrangement of “Swing Low.”
    Nice blog!

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