Henry Gilbert, composer of American music

Henry Gilbert (1868-1928) believed that American composers needed to break free of “European ideas of beauty,” in order to create music that reflected an American national character. Gilbert was well known for incorporating African-American and Native American music into his work.

In 1893, Gilbert attended the Chicago World’s Fair, finding employment as a bread-and-pie cutter in a restaurant. He was fascinated by the cultural displays at the Fair, and took down hundreds of folk songs that he heard there. Below is his sketchbook, as well as the first page of an essay he wrote about his experience:

Henry Gilbert

A rattle that Gilbert fashioned himself, for use in his Comedy Overture on Negro Themes:

Edward Curtis (1868-1952), a well-known photographer of Native American peoples, hired Gilbert to transcribe Indian melodies that Curtis had recorded onto phonographic cylinders. Gilbert composed music based on these melodies for Curtis’s “picture-opera,” A Vanishing Race, which Curtis presented throughout the United States in 1911 and 1912.

In this letter from Curtis to Gilbert, Curtis discusses the terms and payment of their agreement:

Listen to a 1912 orchestral recording of Signal Fire to the Mountain God by Henry Gilbert (played by Prince’s Orchestra, Columbia A-5457).



2 Responses to “Henry Gilbert, composer of American music”

  1. Hans Hultman-Boye Says:

    Is Henry Gilbert the composer of “Speakin´of old Kentucky days”?
    It´s recorded by Jack Hylton in 1930.
    It says only Gilbert on the record.
    This fine tune can be heard on Youtube, mostly played by French bands playing classic traditional jazz music.

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