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Primary Sources for Musical Learning: Analyzing the Musical Perspectives of Marian Anderson and Harry T. Burleigh in Deep River

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This post is by Carolyn Bennett, the 2018-2019 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

Eighty years ago, on April 9, 1939, one of America’s greatest voices sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In Europe, Toscanini praised her; Sibelius composed for her. In the United States, she appeared with the New York Philharmonic, performed at Carnegie Hall, and became a favorite of Albert Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt. But on Easter Sunday 1939, she donned a fur coat against the fifty-degree bluster to perform outdoors. Despite the direct intervention of the First Lady, performance venues across Washington, D.C., had refused to open their stage doors to the world renowned African American contralto, Marian Anderson.

Crowd listens to Marian Anderson at Lincoln Memorial Concert. Harris and Ewing, 1939

Marian Anderson Performing at the Lincoln Memorial April 9, 1939. Harris and Ewing, 1939
Deep River. Arranged by Harry T. Burleigh, 1916

Anderson’s concert drew an integrated audience of 75,000. Later in her long career, she would return to Washington to perform at two presidential inaugurations and the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Her path to world renown started with Harry T. Burleigh’s Deep River, the song that attracted the attention of her vocal coach and landed her first record.

Deep River marked the early years of composer Harry T. Burleigh’s career, too; after his success with Deep River, he went on to arrange many more spirituals for choirs and solo singers. He also composed many original works and sustained a relationship of mutual inspiration with Antonin Dvořák.

The three-part arrangement is a beautiful selection for any high school treble chorus. Listen to Marian Anderson’s recording from 1923 to help students more deeply understand the piece and its message, resulting in an informed, heartfelt performance rooted in American history.

Deep river song for three-part chorus women’s voices piano accompaniment

Using Anderson’s recording or the choral score, ask students to notice musical details. Then ask them to synthesize these observations with their background knowledge and experiences in music and history to arrive at a deeper understanding of the piece.

  • Notice the drastic dynamic, or volume, changes. Whether a phrase begins quietly or loudly, the dynamics continue to change and shift throughout each phrase. How do these dynamic changes strengthen the message of the lyrics?
  • Notice Anderson’s control of tone as she accesses high and low notes in her range. As a singer, how can range affect the way a note is performed? How does the placement of high and low notes within the melody add to its emotional impact?
  • As students analyze dynamics and pitch, they may notice a contrasting section of music that begins with the lyrics “Oh don’t you want to go…” What musical qualities make this section stand out to the listener? Why might this section be expressed so differently than the beginning and end of the piece?

If students perform the piece, they can use this process of analysis to inform their explorations of the central question of performance:  How can I most effectively use my artistry to communicate the piece’s powerful message?

Additional Resources


  1. Wow, this is wonderful. I look forward to sharing this recording and music the next time I teach this song or talk about Marion Anderson’s performance.

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