The Atlanta Music Festival is a contemporary annual event that draws on a century-old musical and cultural heritage. In the wake of Atlanta's 1906 race riots, Henry Hugh Proctor, pastor of Atlanta's First Congregational Church, launched programs to improve black communities and encourage racial harmony. In May of 1910 white Atlantans produced a highly publicized grand opera week, featuring New York's Metropolitan Opera. Reverend Proctor in turn formed The Atlanta Colored Music Festival Association, which produced its first concert that August. Thanks to the association's cordial invitation, the 2000 attendees in Atlanta's Auditorium-Armory included a large contingent from the white community. The festival featured the most prominent African American concert artists of the day. Years later, Proctor recalled: "Our Music Festival brought the best musical talent of the race to the city, and attracted great audiences of both races. As a matter of fact, we found that music was a great solvent of racial antipathies, just as David found it a solvent for personal antagonism with Saul." The concert was presented annually through 1917.
Dwight Andrews, current pastor of First Congregational Church, revived his congregation's music festival tradition in 2001 through collaboration with the nonprofit worship-arts organization Meridian Herald, led by Steven Darsey. Since then the music festival, sponsored by Meridian Herald, First Congregational Church, and, from 2011, Emory University offers annual performances, engaged scholarship, lectures, a conservatory for youth, and university courses. Honoring Proctor's vision, the Atlanta Music Festival explores evolving racial and societal landscapes.
Reverend Andrews comments, "We are concerned about concert music and cultural activities in America, and, with an ear to voices that have not been heard, are striving to create a musical world of reconciliation and empowerment. We are not taking a quick, small scale view, but, imagining what American musical culture can and should be, are plotting a journey toward that goal. With collaboration among universities and communities—and emphasizing children—we are making an investment, anticipating a return that will shape the American musical and cultural landscape of the future."
Dwight Andrews, pastor of Atlanta's First Congregational Church, has revived his congregation's music festival tradition in a twelve-year collaboration with Steven Darsey and Meridian Herald. The May 2010 concert represented the 100th anniversary of First Church's original music festival. Andrews, artistic director, and Darsey, music director, explore their race's historic relationships through inherited musical forms and their evolutions into contemporary classical expressions. This collaboration among Meridian Herald, First Congregational Church, Emory University, and other community partners, commemorates our shared histories, celebrates progress, and lays claim to an inclusive future.
The Atlanta Music Festival Conservatory is a collaboration between the Atlanta Music Festival, Emory University's Graduation Generation Education and the First Congregational Church. The Conservatory offers an after school program and a two week summer program for 4th-6th graders who learn to play band instruments, study music theory and receive students. The students come from metro Atlanta area schools and community programs, including Toomer Elementary, Whitefoord Elementary, IMAGE Program, Wesley Academy and Stanton Elementary. All are welcome without regard to musical ability. The program is free.
The Atlanta Music Festival, formerly called the Atlanta Colored Music Festival, harks back to a century-old effort to unite black and white Atlantans through music. The troubled turn of the twentieth century saw a hardening of racial attitudes across the American South, as Jim Crow laws and enforced segregation became entrenched. One legacy of this development was the deadly 1906 race riot in Atlanta. In response to these ugly times, the Reverend Henry Hugh Proctor, pastor of First Congregational Church, turned to a universal language of healing: music. He began a classical music festival.
Proctor had more than music in mind. Tennessee-born and Yale-educated, he wanted to demonstrate the high cultural attainments of black musicians, composers, and audiences. He brought prominent musicians and composers to the Atlanta Armory for the first festival in 1910 and called this and subsequent festivals "interracial cooperative meetings." He enlisted musicians at the cutting edge of American musical creativity, performers such as Sisserati Patti, Roland Hayes, Harry T. Burleigh and the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
Some white Atlantans supported Proctor's vision. Never pointing out that the white opera season denied blacks attendance, Proctor instead encouraged whites to attend the festival, making use of a separate entrance and separate seating. When the first arias filled the Armory, they drew great applause, and none greater than from the white audience... segregated in the balcony. The New Georgia Encyclopedia article on the Atlanta Colored Music Festival includes more information.<
Proctor's current successor to the pulpit at First Congregational, Yale graduate the Reverend Dr. Dwight Andrews, along with others, extends the spirit of those historic concerts. The ongoing collaboration of First Congregational Church and Meridian Herald —now in their thirteen year—and now since 2011 with Emory University, builds on the past and points to the future. The music of African Americans, first wrought in the crucible of slavery, has become a prophetic voice for artistic and moral truth throughout the world. We offer this music with those who sang through the dark past, that their aspirations and hope for progress might be advanced.
Lift: four letters, one syllable, yet a word freighted with meaning. "Lift" bespeaks effort—even labor—that may be physical or mental or spiritual or all three. It implies position. To lift is to reach higher, to seek something above, stretching from below. "Lift" is the word that James Weldon Johnson summoned to open his justly famed anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing". A deft poet, Johnson uses the imperative. He might have chosen the subjunctive, suggesting, "Let Us Lift Our Voices", the mood so often used in prayer, a way of speaking that would have been familiar to his audience. Instead, he commands, calling in a literal sense the singers and the listeners to lift their voices. And sing.
Johnson wrote the poem for a program sponsored by the African American community of Jacksonville, Florida (his birthplace) to mark Abraham Lincoln's birthday in 1900. His younger brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, a classically trained composer and singer, set the words to music. In his autobiography, Along This Way (1933), Johnson recalls, "I got my first line….Not a startling line; but I worked along grinding out the next five. When, near the end of the first stanza, there came to me the lines:
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us.
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.
Johnson continues, "The spirit of the poem had taken hold of me, and I finished the stanza and turned it over to Rosamond."
The brothers, notes the late Dr. Rudolph Byrd in an account of the song's history, arranged to have a chorus of Jacksonville school children—five hundred children—sing it. For the 2011 Atlanta Music Festival Conservatory performance, Dr. Byrd inspired a reprise of that performance. His colleagues recruited, supervised and led students in grades four, five and six from sixteen Atlanta schools—public and private—as they sang "Lift Every Voice" in Atlanta's Symphony Hall. The children's enthusiasm seemed to echo that felt one hundred eleven years before; the decibel level may have been higher, as the 2011 chorus number 577.
Rudolph Byrd died just four weeks after the performance, leaving an impressive scholarly legacy and the haunting reverberation of the children's chorus.
James Weldon Johnson was a man of wide accomplishment. His parents belonged to Jacksonville's African American middle class. His father was a resort hotel headwaiter. His mother was the first female black public school teacher in Florida, and later a school principal. The relatively sheltered Johnson children were encouraged by their parents to study, read widely, enjoy classical music and the arts. They visited relatives in the Bahamas and in New York. After graduating from the school where his mother taught, Johnson enrolled at Atlanta University for both high school and college, earning an A.B. degree in 1894. During two undergraduate summers, he taught African American children in rural Hampton, Georgia and saw the grinding poverty they experienced. He became the principal of the school he had attended in Jacksonville, adding two grades to the school while somehow finding time to study law. He became the first African American to pass the bar in Florida.
James and his brother, who graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music in 1897, began collaborating in writing popular music for the stage. They moved to New York. James took some graduate courses at Columbia and entered the diplomatic service, becoming consul first in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela and then in Corinto, Nicaragua where he wrote a novel. He married, moved back to the U.S. , continued writing prose and poetry. In 1916, he accepted the post of field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and then general secretary of the NAACP in 1920. "Lift Every Voice" had become a fading memory for him, but had earned an honored place in African American culture. In 1921, the NAACP designated it the organization's official song.
In his later years, Johnson continued writing, publishing a second collection of poetry, God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse; a history of black life in New York and the Harlem Renaissance, Black Manhattan; his autobiography; and, in 1934, Negro Americans, What Now?, arguing for integration as the only real solution to America's racial problems, thereby anticipating the momentous civil rights decisions of the fifties. He died in 1938 in an automobile accident. His brother Rosamond, only two years James' junior, lived until 1954.
The brothers might have been amused had they looked into the etymology of the word "lift". According to an online dictionary, it comes from Old Norse, "to raise" but also has some links to Old English, "lyft", meaning "heaven".
The 2016 Atlanta Music Festival will be November 14-18, 2016. Comprising several events devoted to advancing relations among the races through the arts, the Festival will culminate in a gala concert featuring opera star Jessye Norman at Glenn Memorial Auditorium on the Emory University campus, Friday, November 18, 7:00 PM. Having conquered the stages of Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, The Metropolitan Opera as well as the great houses of Europe, and won five Grammy awards, the National Medal of Arts, France's Légion d'honneur, as well as 40 honorary doctorates, Ms. Norman is one of the greatest and most celebrated classical singers of our time. Also featured in the concert are Atlanta tenor Timothy Miller, the Morehouse and Spelman College Glee Clubs, and the Meridian Chorale. Dwight Andrews is artistic director and Steven Darsey is music director.
The final work of the evening will be an anthem arranged by the renowned composer Adolphus Hailstork. Scored for choirs, soloists, and orchestra, it will conclude with the audience joining the performers in singing words inspired by President Obama's speech "A More Perfect Union": "We will be each other's keeper there, in a land where all are free; where equality and justice rule, we will write our destiny."
In addition to the concert, the Festival will include events to further engage the community: a "Children's Sing" at Ebenezer Baptist Church with five hundred Atlanta elementary students learning of and singing "Lift Every Voice and Sing"; lectures and performances by opera singer Timothy Miller to one thousand middle school and high school students at Woodward Academy; a panel discussion on the power of the arts to build community; a composer's forum; and a continuing legal education seminar on Atlanta's legal history between the 1906 race riot and the formation of Atlanta Legal Aid in 1924. Some proceeds from the Festival support the AMF conservatory, providing year-round music education for underserved youth in Atlanta, with the goal of cultivating the cultural community of the future.
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The Atlanta Music Festival depends principally on individual donors. Contributions may be made to sponsoring organization Meridian Herald via mail or the "donate" buttons below. There you may contribute by credit card or via PayPal. All online contributions and checks to Meridian Herald marked "for Atlanta Music Festival" go solely for Festival support. Contributions of any size are welcome. Contributions to Meridian Herald are tax deductible.