To me the larger nugget of wisdom in this saying is that things don’t always go our way in life, but when we encounter an obstacle, how we respond is a measure of who we are and what we are made of. We can either accept defeat or we can decide that we will overcome the obstacle by turning it into an opportunity to achieve a greater good.
In March 2020, the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay was handed a big lemon in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic. As we were in the final preparations for a concert of Bach’s “St. John Passion” with The Florida Orchestra, we all went into hiatus as part of efforts to slow the spread of the pandemic. Live singing was put on the back burner as arts organizations around the world cancelled rehearsal and concert schedules.
Our Artistic Director selected the Spiritual “My Lord, What a Mornin’”, arranged by Harry Thacker Burleigh as our first submission for the 2020-2021 season. Harry Burleigh (12/2/1866-9/12/1949) was an American classical composer, arranger, and professional singer known for his baritone voice. The first Black composer instrumental in developing characteristically American music, Burleigh made Black music available to classically trained artists both by introducing them to spirituals and by arranging spirituals in a more classical form. “My Lord, What a Mornin’” was one of the many Spirituals he arranged.
Burleigh was accepted, with a scholarship, to the prestigious National Conservatory of Music in New York. He obtained the scholarship with the help of Frances MacDowell, the mother of composer Edward MacDowell, and would eventually play double bass in the Conservatory's orchestra. To help support himself during his studies, Burleigh worked for Mrs. MacDowell as a handyman. Reputedly, Burleigh, who later became known worldwide for his excellent baritone voice, sang spirituals while cleaning the Conservatory's halls, which drew the attention of the conservatory's director, Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, who asked Burleigh to sing for him. Burleigh introduced Antonín Dvořák to Black American music, which influenced some of Dvořák's most famous compositions and led him to say that Black music would be the basis of American classical music.
For “My Lord, What a Mornin’”, Brett reached out to Patrick Dailey, who is on the voice faculty of Tennessee State University. Mr. Dailey is a 2012 graduate of Morgan State University and received his Master of Music from Boston University. While at Tennessee State University he established the Big Blue Opera Initiatives (BBOI) and the annual Harry T. Burleigh Spiritual Festival. As a subject matter expert on Harry Burleigh, we couldn’t have asked for a better guest contributor.
Mr. Dailey, in addition to his creation of the Harry T. Burleigh Spiritual Festival, has done considerable research into the Spiritual as a musical genre. Mr. Dailey mentioned that the Spiritual should be characterized by a “rich, deep, full sound” supported by the desire to go “deeper into ourselves” in expressing the music. In one exercise he led us during the rehearsal, we practiced the call and response tradition that is alive in so many Spirituals and used “bound for Canaan’s land” as our practice vehicle. It was such a pleasure to work with Mr. Dailey and I came away from our encounter with a deeper understanding of the Spiritual that informed my individual practice and my participation in the virtual choir experience.
We kicked off the season and began virtual rehearsals via Zoom on September 8th, 2020 and submitted our individual videos to Arts Laureate by Sunday, October 18th. In total, 83 singers submitted videos and it was now up to Brett to review all of them and work with Arts Laureate to create the beautiful video that you see here.
“My Lord, What a Mornin’” premiere on the Master Chorale YouTube Channel on Sunday, November 22nd and I watched it on the day of the premiere with a combination of awe and gratitude. It was pure joy to see the faces of my friends and singing colleagues in the Master Chorale together, making beautiful music again. There are a lot of virtual choir videos available and I have watched many, but Arts Laureate produced a product that was a beautiful reflection of our Chorale and its members. Our long hiatus was at an end; the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay was back, and the lemonade tasted great!