Harry Lawrence Freeman was a high-acclaimed composer, performer, and music critic during the Harlem Renaisance.
Freeman was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1869. As a young child, he studied piano and began performing as a church organizt around twelve years old.
By 1891, Freeman was living in Denver, Ohio where he formed an all-black amateur opera company to put on his first works, the libretti of which he also wrote. The Martyr (subtitled “a sacred opera”), which Freeman would later count as his first “grand opera,” was performed in Chicago during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and in Denver.
In 1893 at age 24, Freeman began formal music instruction with Johann Beck, the conductor of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, who compared Freeman’s musical style to that of the great German composer Wilhelm Richard Wagner.
In 1903, Freeman incorporated African students at Wilberforce University (where he taught) into performances of his opera “An African Kraal.
After leaving Wilberforce, he worked as a music director for numerous musical comedies and theatrical organizations including the Pekin Stock Company in Chicago (ca. 1907), Bob Cole and J. Rosamond Johnson’s Red Moon tour (1909-1910), and John Larkins’ Royal Sam tour (1911-1912).
In 1912, Freeman founded and conducted the 75 member Negro Choral Society. In 1920, he also founded both the Negro Grand Opera Company and the Salem School of Music in Harlem, later renamed the Freeman School of Music. He performed at Carnegie Hall twice during his lifetime, once in 1930 and again in 1947.