Although he is best remembered for his arrangements of African American spirituals, such as “Deep River” (1917), Harry T. Burleigh also made significant contributions to the American art song. Composed during the height of his success, Burleigh’s “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors” (1915), to a text by Walt Whitman, is a dramatic account of an African American woman, or “Ethiopian” (by the mid-nineteenth century, “Ethiopians” had become synonymous with “Africans” in the Western world), and her chance meeting with a Union soldier.
“Ethiopia” is an old black slave woman who salutes the American flag as she sees General Sherman’s troops march by, all the while she herself is being watched by a soldier. The colors in her turban—yellow, red, and green—represent those found in the Ethiopian flag. Burleigh musically depicts the setting with a precise, militaristic accompaniment, and with the quotation of the Civil War tune, “Marching through Georgia”. One of Burleigh’s most ambitious songs and one he later orchestrated, “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors” is worthy of inclusion in today’s concert repertoire. | MORE