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H. Lawrence Freeman papers 1870-1982 1890-1954 

Creator: 
Freeman, H. Lawrence (Harry Lawrence), 1869-1954.
Phys. Desc: 
35 linear ft. ( 14 document boxes, 20 flat boxes, 12 oversize boxes)
Call Number: 
MS#1456
Location: 
Rare Book & Manuscript Library
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Biographical Note

The African-American opera composer Harry Lawrence Freeman, son of Lemuel Freeman and Agnes Sims-Freeman, was born in 1869 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Freeman family had been free landholders in Cleveland for several decades before the Civil War. Agnes is said to have had a beautiful singing voice, and young Harry showed exceptional musical abilities at an early age. By age 12, he organized a boy's vocal quartet, in which he sang first treble, and worked as a church organist. Self-taught, he began composing at the age of 18, after being inspired by a performance of Wagner's Tannhauser. By 1891, Freeman had organized the Freeman Grand Opera Company in Denver, Colorado. His first operas, Epthalia and The Martyr, were performed by the Freeman Grand Opera Company in Denver's Deutsches Theater in 1891 and 1893 respectively. Freeman wrote the libretti as well as composing the music for these two pieces, as he did for all of his operas except for Uzziah. In 1893 Freeman returned to Cleveland, where The Martyr had its second production at the German Theatre in 1894. Around 1893 Freeman began studying theory and composition formally with Johann Beck, then the conductor of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. Beck identified Freeman's promise as a composer immediately, saying, "Freeman has some of the important qualities of character that made Wagner great. His compositions are wonderfully big in conception, the music faithfully portraying the sentiment of the words." Perhaps because of this comment, Freeman was dubbed "the colored Wagner" in the press, a sobriquet that stayed with him all his life. Freeman's music shows Wagner's influence in his use of leitmotifs and orchestration; also, Freeman planned to write a cycle of four music-dramas based on African myths, probably inspired by Richard Wagner's 'Ring Cycle' of four operas based on Norse mythology. From about 1894-1904, H. Lawrence Freeman wrote and published a number of popular songs as "Harry Freeman," earning him a reputation as a 'hit' composer in certain circles (in his later works the composer was identified exclusively as "H. Lawrence Freeman"). From 1895-1899, Freeman toured with Ernest Hogan's Rufus Rastus company, writing some of the music for Hogan's blackface musical comedies. In 1899, Freeman married actress and singer Charlotte ("Carlotta") Louise Thomas, the daughter of a prominent black family from Charleston, South Carolina. In January of 1900, their son Valdo Lawrence Freeman was born. Also in 1900, Johann Beck conducted the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra in excerpts from three operas by Freeman, a prestigious symphonic debut for a young American composer, which generated much attention in the press. H. Lawrence Freeman then became the director of the music program at Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio, from 1902-1904, where he directed a student production of his opera African Kraal in 1903. From 1906-1907, both H. Lawrence and Carlotta Freeman worked at the newly-formed Pekin Theatre in Chicago, the first theatre of its kind to be entirely run by and performed in by African-Americans. Around 1908, the Freeman family moved to New York City. They founded the Friends' Amusement Guild in their Harlem brownstone, which grew from a gathering of a few neighbors every Sunday afternoon for music or readings to an organization of several hundred members that produced theatre, opera, charity concerts, and a host of other activities. Carlotta continued working as an actress and later as a stage director, with the Anita Bush Stock Company, the Lafayette Players, and other groups. According to interviews with Valdo Freeman, she also performed occasionally with 'legitimate' (i.e. Caucasian) theatre companies by passing as Latin American or of Mediterranean descent-as such, she was one of the first black actresses to work in white theatres. H. Lawrence Freeman continued to work in musical comedy in New York, while also pursuing his operatic composing, becoming interested in a fusion of the two which he called "Jazz Opera." He served as musical director for the Cole-Johnson Brothers Company from 1909-1910, which produced popular "Tin Pan Alley" musicals, and afterwards was musical director of the John Larkins Musical Comedy Company for a few years. He also founded and conducted the Negro Choral Society, a chorus of about 75 voices, starting in 1912. In 1920 the Freemans founded the Negro Grand Opera Company, a group designed to mount H. Lawrence's operas and provide performance opportunities for African-American singers. The same year, H. Lawrence Freeman founded his own music school in Harlem, the Salem School of Music, which was renamed a few years later the Freeman School of Music. From about 1920 onwards, Valdo Freeman acted as his father's business manager, seeking out opportunities for production and publication of the operas--he was the manager of the Negro Grand Opera Company and also became executive director of the Friends Amusement Guild. All three Freemans became thickly embedded in the cultural life of the Harlem Renaissance, with their brownstone serving as an impromptu salon for figures such as Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle, Marion Anderson, Muriel Rahn, and Lena Horne in later years. By the late 1920s, H. Lawrence's work was becoming well-known in New York, through his performances, teaching, and his work as a musical critic and essayist for the New Amsterdam News and the Afro-American newspapers. In 1928 his opera Voodoo was produced at the 52nd Street Theater, and a concert performance of the same opera was broadcast live over the radio station WGBS. Freeman received the Harmon Award for significant achievement by an African-American in the field of arts and letters in 1930; the other 11 recipients included Adam Clayton Powell. Later the same year he played excerpts from several of his operas at Carnegie Hall. In 1934 he was the composer and musical director of the pageant "O Sing a New Song," a high-profile event at the Chicago World's Fair which celebrated the African-American experience. The late-1930s saw a few productions and many failed attempts at production of Freeman's operas, most significantly a production of Vendetta at the Park Palace in 1937. Valdo was especially interested in seeing his father's work produced at 'mainstream' rather than historically black venues, and during this period he contacted the Metropolitan opera, a few of the Broadway theatres, and several major concert halls. The Freemans' work was largely suspended during World War II, but Valdo's efforts were rewarded in 1947 by a production of The Martyr at Carnegie Hall. H. Lawrence conducted an interracial cast that included Muriel Rahn and Louis Rocca. The production received reviews from both mainstream and African-American newspapers; while most critics agreed that it was a historic moment, many noted that the work was unfinished (not completely orchestrated) and needed polishing. Some objected to Freeman's mixture of jazz and African song forms with more traditional elements of Western classical music such as the dacapo aria. This and many other performances of Freeman's operas were criticized for having inadequate orchestras; Valdo Freeman later said that hiring and rehearsing the instrumentalists was one of the most difficult parts of his father's productions, given the need for the musicians to be comfortable with both Western classical and jazz styles. In the late 1940s, H. Lawrence Freeman began developing the Aframerican Opera Foundation, a group that would promote black composers and singers, and also offer opera in a smaller, more accessible format to a wider audience. Among other luminaries, he asked Eleanor Roosevelt to sit on the board of directors. He also sought publication of his monograph, The Negro in Classical Music and Opera, in the early 1950s, but the manuscript was criticized for lack of scholarly methods and significant revisions were recommended. Both projects were cut short by H. Lawrence Freeman's death on March 24, 1954; Carlotta died only three months later, on June 11, 1954. Valdo married Anita Grannum (1908-1999) in 1954, after the death of his parents. The Grannums were long-time friends of the Freeman famil-- Hugh P. Grannum, Anita's father, was a publisher who knew H. Lawrence and Valdo professionally, and Anita's sisters Alberta and Kathlyn Grannum had sung in the 1947 production of The Martyr. After their marriage, Valdo and Anita became involved with the Negro Actors' Guild; Valdo served as administrative secretary from 1965 until his death in 1972, and Anita continued to work there as chairwoman of the board until about 1980. Anita was a graduate of the law school at St. John's University, and it was with her legal expertise that Valdo began the process of conserving his father's estate. After Anita's death in 1999, H. Lawrence Freeman's scores and other papers were passed to her sister Kathlyn, and then to her niece Holly Zuber-Banks.

Scope and Contents

The original scores, clippings, correspondence and ephemera in this collection document the lives and careers of Harry Lawrence, Carlotta, and Valdo Freeman, a family of African-American performing artists involved in opera, theatre, and music in early-twentieth-century New York. The Harry Lawrence Freeman Collection provides an assortment of material related to American opera and to the artistic performance and social history of African-Americans from about 1890-1950. They include the original manuscript scores to 21 of his operas. These present the fullest picture available of the composer's intentions and artistic process. Freeman's non-musical work is also represented, including drafts of his unpublished book, The Negro in Classical Music and Opera, plays, libretti, and journal articles. The musical scores are accompanied by documentation of the production of his operas, including programs, advertising, correspondence, clippings, schedules and budgets, and production designs. Production documentation also exists for the work of Carlotta Freeman as an actress and stage director with many historic black theatre companies, including the Lafayette Players, the Anita Bush Stock Company, and the Pekin Theatre. Images, from daguerreotypes and paintings to casual snapshots, are included in the Collection. Many prominent African-American performers inscribed headshots or publicity photos to one or more of the Freemans, which are present. There are several large-format paintings and framed photos by the artist Edward Elcha depicting the Freemans, sometimes in costume. The Freemans founded three arts organizations-- the Friends' Amusement Guild, the Negro Grand Opera Company, and the Aframerican Opera Foundation-- and records of each, comprising stock, correspondence, ephemera, and receipts are included in the collection. Valdo and Anita Freeman were also involved with the Negro Actors' Guild, and some documents relating to this organization are also present. Several scrapbooks are included, most from the early twentieth century, with clippings, programs, and other ephemera related to H. Lawrence Freeman's career. Recordings of two interviews with Valdo Freeman talking about his father and playing excerpts from his father's work, are also present in the collection. Lastly, there is a small amount of personal documents and ephemera, including a violin that belonged either to H. Lawrence or Valdo Freeman.