Harry Burleigh

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Harry Burleigh
Maud Cuney Hare-Harry T Burleigh 328.jpg
Background information
Birth name Henry Thacker Burleigh
Born (1866-12-02)December 2, 1866
Erie, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Died September 12, 1949(1949-09-12) (aged 82)
New York, New York, U.S.
Occupation(s) Singer, composer, arranger

Henry Thacker "Harry" 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]

Henry Thacker Burleigh was born in Erie, Pennsylvania in 1866 to Henry Thacker and Elizabeth Burleigh. His grandfather, Hamilton Waters, was granted manumission from slavery in Somerset County, Maryland, for himself for $50 and for his mother for $5 in 1832 and a certificate of freedom in 1835. They traveled to Ithaca, New York, where two of Hamilton's half-brothers lived. After his mother died, Hamilton married Lucinda Duncanson. Their first child, Elizabeth Lovey Waters, who would be Harry T. Burleigh's mother, was born in Lansing, New York, in 1838. Later that year the family moved to Erie, Pennsylvania, which would be the family home until the 1920s. Elizabeth, who graduated from Avery College in Pittsburgh in 1855, was denied a teaching position in the Erie Public Schools, but she taught at the Colored School for a number of years. Burleigh's father, Henry Thacker Burleigh, a naval veteran in the Civil War, was the first black juror in Erie County in 1871. After his early death in 1873, Elizabeth married John Elmendorf in 1875, who was also a veteran of the Union Navy. Burleigh's grandfather who was known for his "exceptionally melodious voice," taught young Harry and his brother Reginald traditional spirituals and slave songs. Harry helped support his family by lighting gas streetlamps, selling newspapers and working as a printer's devil, working as a coachman, as a steward on Lake Erie steamboats, and after training at the Clark's Business College while he was in high school, as an accountant. His mother occasionally worked as a maid for the daughter of Henry Thacker Burleigh's employer when she held musicales in her home, and Burleigh served as a doorman when Venezuelan pianist Teresa Carreño performed there. He studied voice with George F. Brierly, and during and after his high school years became known as one of Erie's most accomplished classical singers. He was employed as a soloist by several Erie churches and the Jewish synagogue and appeared as soloist at many community and civic events.[2]

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."[3] Dvořák said "In the negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music."[4]

From what he called "Negro melodies" and 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, and which may have been written by a Black (African-American, by descent) Native American (by legal status) Choctaw freedman, Wallis Willis.

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.;[5] see also the Talk page of the Symphony. 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.[citation needed]

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.”[6]

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.[7] 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. He retired from this position after 52 years in 1946. He was instrumental in starting its tradition of an annual Spirituals service every May (1924–55). His singing "The Palms" by Faure was a Palm Sunday tradition for 50 years, including New York Mayor La Guardia arranging a radio broadcast of it from his office in 1944.[5] In the late 1890s, Burleigh gained a reputation as a concert soloist, singing art songs, opera selections, as well as African-American folk songs. He sang before King Edward VII in London in 1908, among other prestigious European concerts.[5] 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.[7] He also frequently worked with Walter F. Craig and his orchestra.[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.[11][12] His remains were returned for burial in Erie, Pennsylvania.[13]

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.[14]

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. ^ Jean E. Snyder. Harry T. Burleigh: From the Spiritual to the Harlem Renaissance. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2016.
  3. ^ 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
  4. ^ Interviewed by James Creelman, New York Herald, May 21, 1893
  5. ^ a b c 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. 
  6. ^ Snyder, Jean E. (2004-09-22). "Harry T. Burleigh, "one of Erie's most popular church singers".". Black Music Research Journal. 
  7. ^ a b Current Biography Yearbook 1941. H.W. Wilson, The Bronx, New York. pp. 120–121. 
  8. ^ Snyder 2016, p155
  9. ^ http://www.oremus.org/hymnal/i/i1236.html Accessed 2011 December 11.
  10. ^ Afrocentric Voices: H.T. Burleigh Biography
  11. ^ http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/ihas/loc.natlib.ihas.200035730/default.html
  12. ^ http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/harry-burleigh-dedicated-gospel-performer
  13. ^ http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=12072
  14. ^ The Hymnal 1982. New York: Church Hymnal Corp. 1982. ISBN 0898691214. 
  15. ^ 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.
  16. ^ Dedicated to Mrs. James Speyer, Item 12241, high voice in E-flat (Philadelphia: Theodore Presser Company, 1914).

External links[edit]