Spirituals and the Nationalistic Music of the United States

Spirituals and the Nationalistic Music of The United States

The Conservatory of Music

Alongside the early stages of the development of Western music in the Americas during the late 1800s came the global desire to establish national boundaries; music was one particular area where countries wanted to display their national pride and establish their nationality. The Americas, particularly the United States, was at an awkward stage in the development of its own nationalistic music, as it was not clearly established what “American music” was at this point. Eventually, a composer from Prague alongside the National Conservatory of Music, founded by Jeannette Meyers Thurber, in the United States would help push the majority of the country see that “American music” was to be built off the country’s foundation: the music and rhythms of the indigenous people and African Americans—this American music consists of the African American spirituals that WEB DuBois discussed in The Souls of Black Folk; this post serves to give some more context around the spirituals that emerged from traditional African songs that were passed down from the very first slaves in the U.S.

The United States – Early 20th Century

By the late 19th century, when the United States was trying to establish its own music, European music had already been established in the several countries, making the creation of their nationalistic music simple and original. American music, however, was in its early stages of development, leaving the people of the United States reliant on the more established European classical music (Grout, 2019). The study of music was also extremely dependent on European music; people from the United States started traveling to Europe in order to study music there—after placing European music at the center of music, many people then tried to imitate this music and during the era where national boundaries were rising attempted label it as America’s nationalistic music, in spite of the music that already existed in the United States.

It is extremely unfortunate that there was an attempted imitation of European music, and in the process the neglect of the native music of the Americas as nationalistic music and attempting to work with that as the nationalistic music of the country and push for its development. Even beyond the music of African American culture, there existed genres created in the United States than European music, which held much more significance as “American music”—parlor songs, piano music from the 19th century meant to be played at home in the parlor,  are one example of actual music created in the United States (Grout, 2019). A lot of people during the late 19th century and early 20th century in the United States failed to see the truth in what actual American national music was, placing European music as the pedestal of all music. They ultimately ignored African American spirituals and hymns, which have such heavy and deep roots in the country (Gioia, 2011), as well as neglected the acknowledge Native American music or African culture and rhythms as essential aspects of American nationalistic music—as the instruments and cultures became more “popular”, there were also a lot of misconceptions by the public; for example, the banjo is often believed to be an instrument of the southern part of the United States, but its origin is West Africa and the Caribbean (Odell, 2015); it was at one point one of the leading instruments in the rhythms sections of Jazz music.

Jazz, the combination of African American rhythm, feel, and what was once recognized as European musical harmony, is certainly American music. Its foundations are deep in African American music, specifically hymns, gospel, and spirituals, which all eventually led to the development of the blues and Ragtime, as well as “Big Band” Swing and Bebop which followed. Of course, not all people were unaware of the importance and prominence of African American music in the United States and the nationalistic music of the United States.

Berta, Berta by Branford Marsalis; an attempt to look at the origins of Jazz.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers

The African American spiritual, originally an oral tradition that imparted Christian values while also describing the hardships of slavery, is the root of the awareness of the importance of African American music and culture as a large foundation in the music of the United—noted, the music of several American countries rely on the music and rhythm that enslaved people from West Africa brought with them (Odell, 2015 ). While not everyone acknowledged this at first, there were some individuals who did acknowledge it early—the performance of the spiritual’s importance by the Fisk Jubilee singers (Grout, 2019), students from Fisk University who toured the country in the 20th century, were an especially important part of the affirmation of the importance of the spirituals. One of the individuals who witnessed these performances was Antonin Dvorak, an influential European composer who was mesmerized by them and clearly saw that this was what American Music ought to be represented as and built off of.

Modern Fisk Jubilee singers take on Spiritual-

Antonin Dvorak

It took a European man from Prague, Bohemia to show the United States what nationalistic American music sounded like—Antonin Dvorak came to the United States during the early 20th century and work briefly as director for the National Conservatory of Music. During his time in the United States, he was inspired by the African American spirituals and Native American music. He thought that the United States was wrong in trying to imitate European music and pose it as nationalistic American music when they already had their own fantastic nationalistic music, as well as a strong foundation to keep creating nationalistic music (Another fantastic individual who utilized the foundations of the United States in his music was William Grant Still (Grout, 2019)). And so, Dvorak returned to Bohemia and composed his Symphony for The New World, which utilized the rhythms and structures of Native American music and the African American spirituals, essentially showing the United States how to truly write their nationalistic music.

Symphony For The New World Mvt. 4


Grout, Donald Jay, et al. A History of Western Music. W. W. Norton, 2019.

Gioia, Ted. The History of Jazz. Oxford University Press, 2011.

Odell, Jay Scott. “Banjo”. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 23 February 2015.



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