Greenfield, Elizabeth Taylor (c. 1819–1876)
Greenfield, Elizabeth Taylor (c. 1819–1876)
Black concert artist and teacher, who became the first American singer to win critical acclaim for her performances both in the U.S. and in Europe. Name variations: The Black Swan. Born Elizabeth Taylor around 1819 in Natchez, Mississippi; died on March 31, 1876, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; daughter of slaves; her father's surname was Taylor and her mother's name was given as Anna Greenfield; taught herself to play guitar, harp and piano; studied voice briefly in Philadelphia and in England; never married; no children.
Born into slavery; freed in infancy; taken by former owner to Philadelphia; traveled to Buffalo, New York (1851); made professional debut in Buffalo (October 1851); toured extensively (1851–53); traveled to England for further study and concertizing (1853); returned to U.S. (summer 1854); concertized extensively and taught (1854–74); directed Opera Troupe in Philadelphia (1860s).
While prestigious performances and enthusiastic reviews were commonplace for singer Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, her celebrated tour of Great Britain stands out as the major accomplishment of her career. In 1853, Greenfield received one of the highest honors possible for any musician—a command performance before Queen Victoria . The queen's organist, composer and musical advisor, Sir George Smart, served as Greenfield's accompanist. It was an unprecedented event, and Greenfield went on to become the first African-American performer to win praise from British audiences and the press.
Born Elizabeth Taylor in Natchez, Mississippi, to slave parents, Greenfield's birth took place in the home of her family's owner, Mrs. Holliday Greenfield , an elderly widow. The exact year of birth remains uncertain, though Greenfield's biographer Arthur R. La Brew places it between 1819 and 1820. Her death certificate lists her age at time of death as 57.
Not much is known about Greenfield's parents or family. Her father's surname was Taylor and her mother's name was given as Anna Greenfield . In her will, Greenfield mentioned a sister, Mary Parker , and several nieces and nephews. No evidence of a marriage between Greenfield's parents has been found, and the exact relationship of Greenfield to the persons she listed in her will may never be clarified. Surviving accounts of Greenfield's lineage conflict in details, but all concur that she was of racially mixed heritage. Most likely her father was African while her mother was of African, caucasian, and Native American descent.
Sometime around 1821, Mrs. Holliday Greenfield freed her slaves and moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she joined the Society of Friends and, in keeping with the antislavery sentiment of the Quakers, provided her former slaves with financial assistance and transportation to Liberia. Elizabeth Greenfield's father was among those who requested to emigrate, but there is no indication of whether he was accompanied by her mother. The young Elizabeth remained with Mrs. Holliday Greenfield until she was about seven or eight years of age, and then presumably went to live with Mary Parker. Around 1835, Elizabeth Greenfield moved back to Mrs. Holliday Greenfield's residence and would serve as nurse and housekeeper until the elderly widow's death.
It became apparent early in Greenfield's childhood that she possessed unusual musical gifts. She taught herself accompaniments to simple songs on both piano and guitar. Formal music lessons were begun without the knowledge of Mrs. Holliday Greenfield, as Elizabeth feared that her affiliation with the Quakers would preclude any participation in music. She began to study voice, guitar, piano and music rudiments with a neighbor, a musician and teacher known only as Miss Price. Owing to the rapid progress Elizabeth made, an informal recital was planned, to take place in Price's home. With Price providing piano and guitar accompaniment, Greenfield's first performance met with favorable response. Historian James M. Trotter recalled:
[B]efore she had finished she was surrounded by the astonished inmates of the house, who, attracted by the remarkable compass and sweetness of her voice, stealthily entered the room, and now unperceived stood gathered behind her. The applause which followed the first trial before this small but intelligent audience gratified as much as it embarrassed her, from the unexpected and sudden surprise.
Mrs. Holliday Greenfield learned of Elizabeth's clandestine music lessons and performances, and, rather than voicing immediate disapproval, she invited her to sing. Even though the Quakers disapproved of secular music, Mrs. Holliday Greenfield was so favorably impressed with Elizabeth's talent that she provided financial support for continued instruction.
Greenfield had a voice the likes of which the American public had seldom heard from any singer, white or black.
—Rosalyn M. Story
On July 9, 1845, Mrs. Holliday Greenfield died, leaving a substantial portion of her estate to Elizabeth. Mrs. Holliday Greenfield's relatives contested the will on racial grounds and the intended recipient never received her bequest. Nonetheless, in honor of her benefactor's generosity, Elizabeth assumed her surname. Shortly after, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield began to see students and to perform in public. Her singing drew the attention of William Appo, one of Philadelphia's prominent musicians, who engaged her to participate in a concert in Baltimore, Maryland, sometime during 1849. By 1850, Greenfield had gained sufficient notoriety to justify a listing in the Philadelphia City Directory as "E.T. Greenfield, music teacher."
In 1851, Greenfield left Philadelphia on a trip to Buffalo, New York, to visit friends and to attend a performance of renowned soprano Jenny Lind , the "Swedish Nightingale." While crossing Seneca Lake, she entertained passengers on board the boat with her singing. Members of her audience included the wealthy philanthropist Mrs. H.B. Potter ( Electa Potter ), who invited Greenfield to her residence in Buffalo to perform. Shortly after her arrival in Buffalo, Greenfield presented a recital at a large reception arranged for her benefit by Potter. Many of Buffalo's elite were in attendance, one of whom suggested that Greenfield give a series of public recitals.
Elizabeth Greenfield made her stage debut in Buffalo on October 22, 1851, in a performance sponsored by the Buffalo Musical Association. Numerous newspapers and periodicals carried reviews of the event, including Frederick Douglass' North Star. Trotter offered this appraisal by a Buffalo resident:
The concert got up for [Greenfield] was unsolicited on her part, and entirely the result of admiration of her vocal powers by a number of our most respectable citizens, who had heard her at the residence of Gen. Potter, with whose family she had become somewhat familiar. The concert was attended by an audience not second in point of numbers to any given here before, except by Jenny Lind; and not second to any point of respectability and fashion. The performance of Miss Greenfield was received with great applause; and the expression since, among our citizens generally, is a strong desire to hear her again.
A notice of Greenfield's debut in the Buffalo Daily Express, quoted by La Brew, earned her the sobriquet "Black Swan": "Give the 'Black Swan' the cultivation and experience of the fair Swede [Jenny Lind] and Mlle [Theresa] Parodi , and she will rank favorably with those popular singers who have carried the nation into captivity by their rare musical abilities."
While the sobriquet remained with Greenfield throughout her career, its irony was not lost on critics. A reviewer in the New York Tribune commented: "The person who does the ornithology for her musical renown should remember that, though a black swan is a rara avis… it does not sing. Its song when dying is the fancy of a poet when lying." And similarly, an article in the Carpet Bag of February 14, 1852, described the "Black Swan" as "absurdly cognominated. We say absurdly—for swans are never black, neither do they sing. Their modulations are anything but melodious, and their inflections are absolute inflictions." The Albany (NY) Evening Journal of January 19, 1852, printed this observation:
It has become so customary lately, to call concert triumphs and songstresses by the name of some bird to which they bear a real or fancied resemblance, instead of their Christian and proper names, that if we were to say that Miss Greenfield's concert on Saturday evening was well attended and successful, probably most of our readers would not know what we meant. So we will adopt the usual formula, and say that "the Black Swan" was enthusiastically received.
After Greenfield's success in Buffalo, she was invited to appear in other western New York communities, including Rochester and Lockport. Her performances intrigued the impresario Colonel J.H. Wood, a former museum owner, whom she subsequently engaged as her promoter and manager. Wood arranged a lengthy concert tour for Greenfield that lasted well into 1852 and covered major metropolitan areas in the northeastern and upper midwestern United States. Nearly all of her recitals received press coverage and positive reviews. Critics marveled at her vocal ease, flexibility, and sweetness, and her amazing range of at least three octaves.
As Greenfield rose to prominence, the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind was touring the United States. Despite Lind's success and critical acclaim, the American public longed for a singer of its own who could rival the prestige and enthusiastic following generated by Lind and, to a lesser extent, other European singers. Almost immediately after Greenfield began to draw notice from the press, critics succumbed to the temptation of comparing her performances to those of Lind. Greenfield unwittingly contributed to the debate by choosing many of the same pieces for her recital that were, by now, Lind standards. For example, the Rochester (NY) Daily American reported on December 13, 1851: "It was a bold attempt for the Black Swan to sing 'Do Not Mingle,' after Jenny Lind." The Buffalo Daily Courier mentioned, according to La Brew, a Greenfield program "consisting of some of Jenny Lind's most popular songs." Even Greenfield's vocal range was compared to that of Lind. "The compass of [Greenfield's] marvelous voice embraces twenty-seven notes, reaching from the sonorous bass of a barytone [sic], to a few notes above Jenny Lind's highest," the Albany State Register reported on January 19, 1852.
In February 1853, an unnamed promoter engaged Greenfield to sing in various locations in New England, New York, and Canada, and to perform a New York City debut recital. Intended to coincide with the opening of the World's Fair, the debut was scheduled at Metropolitan Hall for March 31, 1853. In the only autobiographical account of her career, The Black Swan at Home and Abroad, Greenfield alluded to the racial oppression that marred her stay in New York. Shortly after arriving, she attempted to attend a recital of the celebrated Italian contralto Marietta Alboni at the Italian Opera House but was refused a ticket. Blacks were also excluded from Greenfield's debut, and unrest was threatened if she went through with the performance. Her recital took place as planned, however, though police were posted throughout the hall to control a rather restless audience numbering nearly 4,000.
In April 1853, Greenfield sailed for England to begin a concert tour. Upon arrival in London, a dispute over back pay forced Greenfield to seek another promoter. Left completely on her own, she appealed to Lord Shaftsbury, a member of a prominent antislavery society, for assistance. He referred her to Harriet Beecher Stowe , who was in England at the time promoting her first novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. Stowe recorded her recollections of Greenfield in her diary, later published as Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands. In an entry dated May 6, 1853, Stowe described Greenfield as "a gentle, amiable and interesting young person." Greenfield must have been requested to perform for Stowe at their initial meeting as the author included observations about her singing: "She has a most astonishing voice… [that] runs through a compass of three octaves and a fourth.… She sings a most magnificent tenor, with such breadth and volume of sound, that, with your back turned, you could not imagine it to be a woman." Stowe was so impressed with Greenfield's gifts that she made arrangements for Greenfield to be introduced to Sir George Smart, organist and composer to Her Majesty Queen Victoria's Chapel Royal.
Potter, Electa (1790–1854)
American philanthropist. Name variations: Mrs. H.B. Potter. Born Electa Miller on March 16, 1790; died on October 13, 1854; second daughter of Frederick and Elizabeth (Babcock) Miller; married Heman B. Potter (a judge), on July 12, 1812 (died, October 7, 1854); children: Mary Eliza Potter (1813–1814); Mary Bradley Babcock (1815–1877, who married George Reed Babcock); Frederick Miller Potter (1817–1818); Elizabeth Miller Potter (1819–1854); Heman Bradley Potter (1824–1859).
Electa Potter, a prominent philanthropist in Buffalo, New York, died on October 13, 1854, six days after the death of her husband, judge Heman B. Potter.
Stowe's diary contained a brief but important description of Greenfield's physical appearance, and also revealed the more enlightened racial attitudes among those closest to Queen Victoria. "I never realized so much that there really is no natural prejudice against colour in the human mind," Stowe recorded in Sunny Memories.
Miss Greenfield is a dark mulattress, of a pleasing and gentle face, though by no means handsome. She is short and thickset, with a chest of great amplitude, as one would think on hearing her tenor. I have never seen in any of the persons to whom I have presented her the least indications of suppressed surprise or disgust.
During the remainder of Greenfield's stay in Great Britain, Smart served as her accompanist and mentor, and, with his assistance, she participated in several prestigious concerts. In 1853, she performed at Stafford House, Exeter Hall, and at Hanover Square Rooms. Stowe, who was present at the Stafford House performance, wrote again of Greenfield's voice, "with its keen, searching fire, its penetrating, vibrant quality, its timbre, as the French have it, cuts its way like a Damascus blade to the heart." On May 10, Greenfield received a royal command from Queen Victoria to sing at Buckingham Palace—an invitation reserved for only the most celebrated of musicians.
In July of 1854, Greenfield returned to the United States and began a second extensive concert tour, traveling throughout the northeast and into Canada. Advertisements for her appearances referred to her success in Great Britain, her vocal range, and her musical maturity acquired through study with Sir George Smart. After completing this second tour, Greenfield began to teach students in her place of residence in Philadelphia. A third tour was undertaken in 1856, lasting approximately one year, and a final concert tour took place in 1863.
In addition to concertizing and teaching, Greenfield participated in numerous charity causes, including benefits to assist orphanages in Buffalo, Detroit, Philadelphia, and New York. She organized the Black Swan Opera Troupe, one of the earliest efforts to involve African-Americans in the performance of standard operatic literature. Her troupe became well-known throughout the northeast and opened up new opportunities for black singers.
Throughout her later years, Greenfield became increasingly active in her church, Shiloh Baptist, where she directed the choir. An illness in 1874 forced her to curtail nearly all her activities. She never recovered and on March 31, 1876, she died of apoplexy. Her death was widely reported and received at least some mention in nearly every major newspaper.
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Juanita Karpf , Assistant Professor of Music and Women's Studies, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia