Autobiographical Reminiscences of African-American Classical Singers, 1853-Present Introducing Their Spiritual Heritage into the Concert Repertoire

By Greschner, Debra | Journal of Singing, January/February 2010 | Go to article overview

Autobiographical Reminiscences of African-American Classical Singers, 1853-Present Introducing Their Spiritual Heritage into the Concert Repertoire


Greschner, Debra, Journal of Singing


Elizabeth Nash, Autobiographical Reminiscences of African-American Classical Singers, 1853-Present. Introducing their Spiritual Heritage into the Concert Repertoire. Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2007. Cloth, viii, 516 pp., $29.95. ISBN 978-07734-5250-3. www.mellenpress.com

The most powerful stories are personal. Autobiographical accounts vivify history, and this is clearly exemplified in a recent volume by Elizabeth Nash. Nash has compiled recollections of African Americans who have been associated with classical singing over the past 150 years. Most of the reminiscences are by singers, but there are also interviews and essays by musicologists, music educators, and others linked to vocal concert music. The collection begins with an essay by Langston Hughes that succinctly recapitulates the history of African Americans on stage and in film, starting with the influence of African rhythms upon the earliest roots of jazz. The synopsis chronicles the gradual integration of the arts by the mid-twentieth century.

The book is divided into five broad sections, arranged in chronological order. The first section is devoted to three women who gained fame as operatic prima donnas in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield (c. 1817-1876), Sissieretta Jones (1869-1933), and Estelle Pinckney Clough (1860?-1920?). Greenfield, who was born into slavery, was the first internationally recognized African American classical singer.

Another section is comprised of remembrances of the Fisk Singers. Fisk University was established in Nashville in 1866 to educate the freed slaves, and the Fisk Jubilee Singers toured, both nationally and internationally, to raise money for the institution. The ensemble is credited with introducing the repertoire of spirituals to the rest of the United States and to the world. Spirituals served many purposes within the slave community, providing a sense of unity, a means of communication and ". . . solace to the sting of the lash against the skin." The impact of spirituals being shared by these singers-most of who had been born into slavery-cannot be overemphasized. Their stories are gripping.

There is a brief section on singers of the early twentieth century, but the bulk of the book is concerned with singers since 1920. Nash groups the recollections according to secular and sacred music. The former is a veritable roster of major opera companies, encompassing luminaries from Todd Duncan and Marian Anderson to Simon Estes and Jessye Norman. Many of the sources are interviews, but the volume also contains articles penned by singers and educators. Nash includes an essay by George Shirley describing the journey of African Americans from minstrel shows to the Met, and an article by Betty Allen defending the Harlem School of the Arts against charges of elitism. …

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