Harry Thacker Burleigh played a significant role in the history of American art song, having composed over two hundred works in the genre. He was the first African-American composer acclaimed for his concert songs and his adaptations of African-American spirituals. Also, Burleigh was an accomplished baritone, a meticulous editor, and a charter member of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP).
Born in Erie, Pennsylvania, on 2 December 1866, Burleigh was surrounded by music from a young age. He performed at local church and civic events throughout his childhood. He named his mother as his first music teacher and learned the African-American spirituals, for which he would later become famous, from her and his maternal grandfather. Burleigh's grandfather had been enslaved but had successfully purchased his freedom. He received his first piano lessons from Susan Vosburgh Dickson. He later studied voice with George F. Brierly, an English church musician trained as a chorister at Worchester Cathedral. Harry Burleigh was a dedicated church musician throughout his life, beginning as a young man in Erie, where he sang in the choirs of the Cathedral of St. Paul’s, the Park Presbyterian Church, and the Reform Jewish Temple. Burleigh was able to hold multiple paid positions since the choirs performed on a staggered schedule. However, Burleigh’s passion for music extended beyond the sacred. In his late teens, he stood in the snow outside the window of his mother's sometimes employer Elizabeth Russell to hear a salon recital by Hungarian pianist Rafael Joseffy and became ill. After revealing the cause of his illness to his mother, she asked Russell to hire Burleigh as a doorman so he could safely attend the racially-segregated events. Burleigh then had the opportunity to hear many well-known classical performers such as Venezuelan pianist Teresa Carreño and Italian tenor Italo Campanini.
In 1892, at the age of twenty-six, Burleigh received a scholarship to the National Conservatory of Music in New York. There he studied composition with Christian Fritsch, Rubin Goldmark, John White, and Max Spicker. The years Burleigh spent at the Conservatory greatly influenced his career, mostly due to his association and friendship with Antonín Dvorák, the Conservatory's director. After spending countless hours recalling and performing the African-American spirituals and plantation songs he had learned from his mother and maternal grandfather for Dvorák, Burleigh was encouraged by the elder composer to preserve these melodies in his compositions. In turn, Dvorák wrote themes inspired by the songs introduced to him by Burleigh in his Symphony no. 9 in E minor ("From the New World"). Also, Burleigh served as a copyist for Dvorák, a task that prepared him for his future responsibilities as a music editor.
In 1894, Burleigh auditioned for the post of soloist at St. George's Episcopal Church of New York. To the congregation's consternation, which objected because Burleigh was African American, he earned the position. However, through his talent and dedication (he held the appointment for over fifty years, missing only one performance during his tenure), Burleigh won the hearts and the respect of the entire church community.
Personally and professionally, the next several years were productive ones for Burleigh. In 1898, he married poet Louise Alston, and their son was born the following year. That same year, G. Schirmer published his first three songs. In 1900, Burleigh was the first African-American chosen as a soloist at Temple Emanu-El, a New York synagogue, and by 1911 he was working as an editor for music publisher G. Ricordi. The publication of several of his compositions, including "Ethiopia Saluting the Colors" (1915), a collection entitled “Jubilee Songs of the USA” (1916), and his arrangement of "Deep River" (1917), led to his further recognition as a composer. The widespread success of his setting of “Deep River” (1917) inspired the publication of nearly a dozen more spirituals the same year. The settings appeared in multiple versions upon publication, including vocal solos in various keys and choral arrangements prepared by Burleigh and others for mixed chorus, men's chorus, and women's chorus.
Burleigh's song cycles, Saracen Songs (1914), Passionale (1915), and Five Songs of Laurence Hope (1915), are considered by many to be his best work. His instrumental output includes the unpublished Six Plantation Melodies for violin and piano (1901), From the Southland for piano (1910), and Southland Sketches for violin and piano (1916).
Burleigh died at age 82 on 12 September 1949. Over 2,000 mourners attended his funeral. Burleigh's compositions and arrangements of African-American spirituals transported a musical tradition born out of the plight of enslaved people onto the concert stage, where they exemplify uniquely American music. Founded in 2017, the Harry T. Burleigh Society External is an organization created to advance “Burleigh studies through scholarship and performance.”
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