Harry Burleigh

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Harry Burleigh
Birth name Henry Thacker Burleigh
Born (1866-12-02)December 2, 1866
Erie, Pennsylvania, United States
Origin New York City
Died September 12, 1949(1949-09-12) (aged 82)
New York, New York, United States
Occupation(s) Singer, composer, arranger

Henry "Harry" Thacker Burleigh (December 2, 1866 – September 12, 1949), a baritone, was an African-American classical composer, arranger, and professional singer. He was the first black composer to be instrumental in the development of a characteristically American music and he helped to make black music available to classically trained artists both by introducing them to the music and by arranging the music in a more classical form.[1]

Early and family life[edit]

Burleigh was born in Erie, Pennsylvania. His mother Elizabeth worked as a maid, and his formerly enslaved grandfather taught young Harry traditional spirituals and slave songs. When he was old enough, Harry helped support his family by lighting streetlamps, selling newspapers and later as a copyist. His mother's employer also hired young Burleigh as a doorman at concert events held at her home, which included talent such as Teresa Carreño and Italo Campanini.[2] Although Harry was named for his father Henry, biographies do not mention his occupation, date of death, nor involvement in his son's life.[3] Although Burleigh lacked traditional music education, he also was employed as a soloist in several churches and synagogues in Erie.

In 1898, after his formal education discussed below, Burleigh married poet Louise Alston. They had one son, Alston, born in 1899 and who survived his parents.

At the National Conservatory, relation with Dvořák[edit]

With the aid of a scholarship (obtained with the help of Frances MacDowell,[1] the mother of composer Edward MacDowell), Burleigh at age 26 was accepted to the prestigious National Conservatory of Music in New York, eventually playing double bass in the Conservatory's orchestra. Though at first the Conservatory denied Burleigh entrance, citing low grades, Mrs. MacDowell (the registrar) insisted that Burleigh try his entrance exam again. Days later, he received a scholarship. To help support himself there, Burleigh worked for Mrs. MacDowell as a handyman, cleaning and working on anything she needed. Reputedly, Burleigh, who later became known worldwide for his excellent baritone voice, sang spirituals while cleaning the Conservatory's halls, which drew the attention of the conservatory's director, Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, who asked Burleigh to sing for him. Burleigh said "I sang our Negro songs for him very often, and before he wrote his own themes, he filled himself with the spirit of the old Spirituals."[4] Dvořák said "In the negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music."[5]

From spirituals and from Native American music, Dvořák took up the Pentatonic scale, which appears in some places in his Symphony "From the New World" and at the beginning of each movement of the "American" String Quartet. In the Symphony, a flute theme resembles the spiritual Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, which may well be among those Burleigh sang to Dvořák. (Generally classified as a spiritual, it was actually written by a Native American.)

In 1922, another student of Dvořák, William Arms Fisher, wrote the spiritual-like song "Goin' Home" based on an English horn melody from the second movement (Largo) of the Symphony. No evidence seems to exist that the song existed before 1922, or the melody before the Symphony (1893), although both are disputed.[6] In 1893 Burleigh assisted Dvořák in copying out instrumental parts for the symphony.

The following year, Burleigh sang in Dvořák's arrangement of Pennsylvania native Stephen C. Foster's classic Old Folks at Home. He graduated in 1896, and later served on the conservatory's faculty.

Singing career[edit]

Burleigh began his singing career as the baritone in his family’s quartet. By the time Burleigh left Erie in January 1892, he was singing with the city’s best vocalists at civic events and church gatherings. At the end of the summer of 1892, Burleigh gave a performance in the Adirondacks, at North Hudson, New York, as the featured soloist in “the summer school for Christian workers.” Nine months after arriving in New York City, Burleigh appeared in two Grand Encampment Concerts at the Metropolitan Church in Washington, D.C., as “the celebrated Western baritone.”[7]

In 1894, he became a soloist for St. George's Episcopal church in New York City. There was opposition to hiring Burleigh at the all-white church from some parishioners, because of his race,[1] at a time when other white New York Episcopal churches were forbidding black people to worship. J. P. Morgan, a member of St. George's at that time, cast the deciding vote to hire Burleigh.[8] In spite of the initial problems obtaining the appointment, Burleigh became close to many of the members during his long tenure as a soloist at the church. In the late 1890s, Burleigh gained a reputation as a concert soloist, singing art songs, opera selections, as well as African-American folk songs. From 1900 to 1925, Burleigh was also a member of the synagogue choir at the Temple Emanu-El in New York, the only African-American to sing there.[8]

Arrangements and compositions[edit]

In the late 1890s, he also began to publish his own arrangements of art songs. About 1898 he began to compose his own songs[1] and by the late 1910s, Burleigh was one of America's best-known composers of art songs. Beginning around 1910, Burleigh also worked editing music for G. Ricordi, an Italian music publisher with offices in New York.

Burleigh published several versions of the Negro spiritual "Deep River" in 1916 and 1917, and he quickly became known for his arrangements of spirituals for voice and piano; one of his arrangements in Common Metre is the hymn tune "McKee", used with John Oxenham's hymn In Christ There Is No East or West.[9] His arrangements helped to make spirituals a popular genre for concert singers, and within a few years, many notable singers performed Burleigh's arrangements.[1]

Burleigh's art song arrangements of the spiritual and other sentimental songs were so popular during the late 1910s and 1920s, that almost no vocal recitalist gave a concert in a major city without occasionally singing them.[citation needed] John McCormack sang a number of Burleigh's songs in concert, including Little Mother of Mine (1917), Dear Old Pal of Mine (1918), Under a Blazing Star (1918), and In the Great Somewhere (1919).[1] In many ways, the popularity of Burleigh's settings contributed to an explosion of popularity for the genre during the 1920s. Burleigh also set some poems of Walt Whitman to music, and also published songs for piano and violin.

Estimates of Burleigh's original musical output range from 200 to 300 songs. In 1914, he was a founding member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), and received a seat on its board of directors in 1941.

Death and Legacy[edit]

Through the 1920s and 1930s, Burleigh continued to promote especially the spirituals through publications, lectures, and arrangements. His lifelong advocacy for the spiritual eclipsed his singing career, as well as his arrangements of art songs. He retired in 1946 because of ill health and his son moved him from Long Island to a retirement home in Stamford, Connecticut, where he died aged 82 from heart failure on September 12, 1949.[10] More than 2000 people attended his funeral at St. George's, and pallbearers included Hall Johnson, Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, William C. Handy, and Cameron White.[2][11] His remains were returned for burial in Erie, Pennsylvania.[12]

With the success of Roland Hayes, Marian Anderson, and Paul Robeson, among others, many of whom he had coached, Burleigh's seminal role in establishing African-American soloists on America's recital stages seemed eclipsed. His many popular art songs from the early twentieth century have often been out of print since the composer's death. Nevertheless, Burleigh's position as one of America's most important composers from the early twentieth century remains.

In 1917, Burleigh received the Spingarn Medal, which the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) awards annually for outstanding achievement by an African American. He also received honorary degrees from Howard University and Atlanta University.

Nobody Knows: Songs of Harry T. Burleigh, an album of his works by Karen Parks (co-produced by Parks and Grammy-winning producer David Macias), debuted at #2 on Billboard′s Traditional Classical Album Chart upon its 2008 release.

Burleigh is honored with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) on September 11. Also, works he edited or transposed continue in the 1982 Hymnal, including No. 529 (In Christ there is no East or West). Other arrangements are included in the alternative hymnals, including Lift Every Voice and Sing.

Works by Harry Burleigh[edit]

Violin and piano[edit]

  • Six Plantation Melodies for Violin and Piano (1901)
  • Southland Sketches (1916)


  • From the Southland (1914)

Art Songs[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Eileen Southern. The Music of Black Americans: A History. W. W. Norton & Co. p. 284. 
  2. ^ a b http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/ihas/loc.natlib.ihas.200035730/default.html
  3. ^ http://pabook.libraries.psu.edu/palitmap/bios/Burleigh__Harry.html
  4. ^ Jean E. Snyder, `A great and noble school of music: Dvořák, Harry T. Burleigh, and the African American Spiritual.' In Tibbetts, John C., Ed., Dvořák in America: 1892-1895, Amadeus Press, Portland, OR 1993, p. 131
  5. ^ Interviewed by James Creelman, New York Herald, May 21, 1893
  6. ^ Simpson, Anne Key (1990). Hard Trials: The Life and Music of Harry T. Burleigh. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. pp. 10–15. ISBN 0-8108-2291-1. ; see also the Talk page of the Symphony
  7. ^ Snyder, Jean E. (2004-09-22). "Harry T. Burleigh, "one of Erie's most popular church singers".". Black Music Research Journal. 
  8. ^ a b Current Biography Yearbook 1941. H.W. Wilson, The Bronx, New York. pp. 120–121. 
  9. ^ http://www.oremus.org/hymnal/i/i1236.html Accessed 2011 December 11.
  10. ^ Afrocentric Voices: H.T. Burleigh Biography
  11. ^ http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/harry-burleigh-dedicated-gospel-performer
  12. ^ http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=12072
  13. ^ See "Just Awearyin' for You" and Professor De Lerma's essay Henry "Harry" T. Burleigh (1866-1949): African American Composer, Arranger & Baritone" which notes the tune for "Just Awearyin' for You" by African-American composer Harry T. Burleigh:
    Just a-wearying for you, for medium voice & piano. New York: William Maxwell, 1906. 6p. Text: Frank L. Stanton. Library: Library of Congress.
  14. ^ Dedicated to Mrs. James Speyer, Item 12241, high voice in E-flat (Philadelphia: Theodore Presser Company, 1914).

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