‘Save the African-American Spiritual’ A Dialogue with William Warfield and Sylvia Olden Lee



On the weekend of Jan. 19-21, 2001, William Warfield and Sylvia Olden Lee were featured in a series of events in Houston, Texas, which offered to those privileged to be in attendance, precious insights into how to convey beautiful ideas through the performance of Classical music. Maestros Warfield and Olden Lee have a combined total of more than 140 years of experience in such activity, as they have devoted their lives to art. Both are still energetically involved in teaching and performing, driven, in part, by a passionate desire to keep alive the American Classical musical tradition, which reaches its most powerful height in the African-American Spiritual. It was no less an authority than the great Czech composer Antonín Dvořák who described the Spiritual as the authentic American Classical form.  In his autobiography, My Music and My Life, Warfield wrote that, as a young man born into humble circumstances—a family of sharecroppers in Arkansas—he knew he “wanted to teach music to bring a new generation the lessons of my art in life. I wanted to play a role in world culture.” Although he has performed everywhere, singing parts from grand opera to Broadway, his real passion has been presenting German Classical Lieder and their American counterpart, the African-American Spiritual. In a career that took him around the world many times, his inspiring work earned him the honorary title of “America’s Musical Ambassador.”

Sylvia Olden Lee broke the color barrier at the New York Metropolitan Opera, when she was hired as a vocal coach in 1954. She was later Professor of Vocal Interpretation at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. She followed in her parents’ footsteps as a part of the tradition of Classical music at Fisk University, where African-American students learned to sing Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, as well as Spirituals...

Read full article here 

PDF version here

DONATE Join the Chorus! Contact

get updates