Reference Entry

Freeman, Harry Lawrence

Antoinette Handy

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Freeman, Harry Lawrence

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composer and conductor, was born in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of Agnes Sims (father's name unknown). Freeman studied piano as a child with Edwin Schonert and later with Carlos Sobrino. He engaged in the study of theory, composition, and orchestration with Johann Beck, founder and first conductor of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. By age ten Freeman had organized a boys' quartet, for which he arranged most of the music, was accompanying pianist, and sang soprano. By age twelve he was assistant organist and later became organist for his family church. While in his early twenties Freeman moved to Denver, Colorado, where he began composing salon pieces, dances, and marches.The motivation behind his attraction to composition on a larger scale was his attendance of a performance of Richard Wagner's opera Tannhäuser by the Emma Juch grand opera company. For nearly the next six months an inspired Freeman produced a new composition almost every day. An avid student of “history, the great poets, romances, and the tragic dramas” (Hipsher, p. 190), his first large work was an opera, The Martyr, composed in 1893, about Platonus, an Egyptian nobleman who is condemned to death for accepting the faith of Jehovah instead of that of his ancestors. He formed the Freeman Grand Opera Company, which presented The Martyr at the Deutsches Theater in Denver and, later, in Chicago, Cleveland, and Wilberforce, Ohio. The performance at Wilberforce is explained by his membership on the Wilberforce University faculty (1902–1904). Under the leadership of Beck the Cleveland Symphony performed scenes from Zuluki (1898), Freeman's second opera (originally known as Nada), in 1900.Around Freeman's composing of “serious” larger works he spent several years composing (either individually or collectively) and conducting works in a lighter vein. His most notable activities in this area took place in the first decade of the twentieth century, during which he served for a brief period as music director of Chicago's Pekin Theater and was also music director of the road show John Larkins Musical Comedy. Freeman was music director for the noted entertainer Ernest Hogan's Rufus Rastus company (1906), composed the music for Captain Rufus (1907), and with James “Tim” Brymn composed the music for Panama (1908).Freeman married the singer and actress Carlotta Thomas from Charleston, South Carolina (year unknown). They had one child, Valdo Lee. Both mother and son starred in several of Freeman's operas, and Valdo produced and directed many of them.As the second decade of the twentieth century approached, Freeman and his family moved to New York City. There Freeman worked with the Bob Cole/Johnson Brothers' (John Rosamond Johnson and James Weldon Johnson) Red Moon company. When Red Moon closed in 1910 Freeman moved on to other activities. He established the Freeman School of Music and the Freeman School of Grand Opera, served as choral conductor with the Negro Choral Society, organized the Negro Grand Opera Company, engaged in music criticism, and taught at the Salem School of Music.Freeman received a William E. Harmon Foundation first-place award in 1930, resulting in a gold medal and $400 as “the composer of the first Negro grand opera.” (The musicologist Eileen Southern, however, points out that this distinction belongs to John Thomas Douglass for Virginia's Ball in the 1860s.) Also in 1930 excerpts from nine of Freeman's fourteen operas were presented in concert at Steinway Hall in New York City.Freeman himself was the librettist for most of his operas. Synopses of several of these appeared in the historian Benjamin Brawley's essay “A Composer of Fourteen Operas,” published in Southern Workman (July 1933). Brawley wrote, “Anyone who has opportunity to study his work at close range is amazed at his achievement and overwhelmed by the sheer power exhibited. His creative faculty is just now at its height. What he may yet produce in the years to come is beyond all estimate.” Although the number of operas remained at fourteen, Freeman did many revisions of earlier ones.Much of his recognition stemmed from the 1928 production of his opera Voodoo (1923), produced by Freeman himself at the Palm Garden in New York City, though he did not attain financial success from it or any of his other compositions. Performed by an “all-Negro cast of thirty” and an all-black orchestra, the presentation was reviewed by the New York Times (11 Sept. 1928). The reviewer said of the musical character of the work: “The composer utilizes themes from spirituals, Southern melodies and jazz rhythms which, combined with traditional Italian operatic forms, produces a curiously naive mélange of varied styles.” An abridged version of Voodoo was presented on WCBS radio. In her 1936 publication Negro Musicians and Their Music, the music historian Maud Cuney-Hare reported that Paramount Film Company “purchased ‘Voodoo,’ to be presented on the screen in a condensed version.” There is no evidence that filming took place or that a film was released.Other titles of Freeman's known operas are An African Kraal (1903), The Octoroon (1904), Valdo (1905), The Tryst (1909), The Plantation (1915), Athalia (1916), and Vendetta (1924). Brawley indicated that at the time of his Southern Workman article, Freeman was working on his fourteenth opera, Uzziah. Other works by Freeman include ballet music, a symphonic poem for chorus and orchestra, two cantatas, songs, and instrumental pieces. Freeman was guest conductor and music director of the pageant O Sing a New Song at the Chicago World's Fair in 1934. The Martyr was presented in concert at Carnegie Hall in 1947. Freeman died in his home in New York City.Not only is Freeman important to the history of African American music but his work also demands recognition in the annals of American music. As the first African American to attain any type of recognition and respectability as a composer of operatic compositions, he was an American pioneer. That he had but little formal instruction makes his accomplishments all the more remarkable. To stage his productions it was necessary to establish his own opera companies and schools; to finance the productions it was necessary for him to teach and engage in less demanding theatrical activities. But Freeman never lost faith in himself and his abilities, nor did he lose faith in the eventual eradication of a segregated system.

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Subjects: History

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