Columbia's Rare Book & Manuscript Library Acquires Papers of H. Lawrence Freeman, Musician and Composer

NEW YORK, February 5, 2008 Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library has acquired a large collection of manuscripts, unpublished scores, librettos, correspondence, photographs, and ephemera from the estate of Harry Lawrence Freeman (1869-1954), one of the earliest composers in America to embellish an operatic score with jazz, blues and spirituals.


H. Lawrence Freeman, born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1869, was a musical prodigy and an ambitious composer. He is credited with being the first African-American composer to have successfully staged an original opera of his own composition, which premiered in Denver’s Deutsches Theater in 1893 when Freeman was 24 years old. Freeman went on to a long career in New York, composing some fifteen full-scale grand operas, a number of which received full-scale performances.

Significantly, all of Freeman’s operas address themes of African-American experience and memory, a fact that positioned him as a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance, the cultural flowering of the arts that emerged out of the upper-Manhattan region in the 1920s and 1930s and produced the signal work of composer William Grant Still. In 1921, Freeman founded the Negro Grand Opera Company in Harlem, occupying the former site of Oscar Hammerstein’s popular theatre. In 1929 he received the prestigious Harmon Foundation Award for achievement in music.

“This collection is a major find for anyone interested in the history of American opera,” said George Lewis, Director of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University.  “Freeman’s engagement with political, historical, and cultural issues in his work was strongly complemented by his deep recognition of how Africa and its diaspora were crucially informing a new American musical identity.”

Like Deems Taylor and Charles Wakefield Cadman, Freeman was one of the first American composers to have an opera broadcast on radio. His opera Voodoo was aired on May 20, 1928, on New York City’s WGBS. “Freeman’s work, like the best American music, was marked by border-crossing,” further explained Lewis. “Jazz, ragtime, vodun, grand opera in the European tradition--nothing was foreign to his creative conception.  This collection will be a boon to the ongoing reconstruction of a more complete picture of African-American history and culture in all of its complexity and beauty.”

The present archive contains the full record of Freeman’s career, including original manuscripts of almost all of his operas as well as other musical compositions, set and costume designs from some of his productions, printed programs and other documents from productions of his operas and other musical performances, founding documents concerning the Negro Grand Opera Company, copious clippings of reviews and contemporary press-coverage, original correspondence, surviving recordings of Freeman’s music, original artwork, portrait photographs, and other items of memorabilia including early family photographs, portrait paintings, a violin, and other personal effects. The archive also includes a great deal of materials related to the careers of Freeman’s wife Carlotta, a noted soprano who appeared in his productions, and his son Valdo, himself a musician and artistic collaborator with his father.

When organized and processed, the Freeman papers will be available for research. For further information, call the RBML at 212-854-5153.

Columbia University Libraries is one of the top ten academic library systems in the nation, with 9.2 million volumes, over 65,650 serials, as well as extensive collections of electronic resources, manuscripts, rare books, microforms, and other nonprint formats. The collections and services are organized into 25 libraries, supporting specific academic or professional disciplines. Columbia Libraries employs more than 400 professional and support staff to assist faculty, students, and researchers in their academic endeavors. The Libraries’ website at is a gateway to its print and electronic collections and to its services.

The Rare Book & Manuscript Library owns over 500,000 rare books in some 20 book collections and almost 28 million manuscripts in nearly 3,000 separate manuscript collections. It is particularly strong in English and American literature and history, classical authors, children’s literature, education, mathematics and astronomy, economics and banking, photography, the history of printing, New York City politics, librarianship, and the performing arts. Individual collections are as eclectic as they are extensive. For more information, please see: