[Harry Thacker Burleigh, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing right], 1927. Prints and Photographs Reading Room, Library of Congress.
Harry Thacker Burleigh played a significant role in the development 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 as well as for his adaptations of African-American spirituals. In addition, 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 from his maternal grandfather, who had been enslaved but had successfully purchased his own freedom. He received his first piano lessons from Susan Vosburgh Dickson and later studied voice with George F. Brierly, an English church musician who had 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 at once since the choirs performed on a staggered schedule. However, Burleigh's passion for music extended beyond the sacred. In his late teens, he was so determined to hear a salon recital by Hungarian pianist Rafael Joseffy at the home of local music lover and his mother's sometimes employer, Elizabeth Russell, he stood outside in the snow to listen and became ill. After revealing the cause of his illness to his mother, she asked Russell to hire Burleigh as a doorman, since he would not have been welcomed as a guest at Russell's racially segregated events, so he could attend the performances without fear for his health. This afforded Burleigh 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 (with some intervention in his behalf from Mrs. Frances MacDowell, mother of famed American composer Edward MacDowell) to the National Conservatory of Music in New York where he studied 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 maternal grandfather for Dvorák, Burleigh was encouraged by the elder composer to preserve these melodies in his own 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"). In addition, Burleigh served as 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 consternation of the congregation, which objected because Burleigh was African American, he was given 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; a son, Alston, 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 soloist at Temple Emanu-El, a New York synagogue, and by 1911 he was working as an editor for music publisher G. Ricordi. His success was enhanced through 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). 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 a variety of keys and choral arrangements prepared by Burleigh and others for mixed chorus, men's chorus, and women's chorus.
Burleigh's achievement in solo vocal writing is best represented by his original song cycles, Saracen Songs (1914), Passionale (1915), and Five Songs of Laurence Hope (1915), considered by many to be his finest 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 September 12, 1949. Over 2,000 mourners attended his funeral. Burleigh's compositions and arrangements of African-American spirituals transported a musical tradition that was born out of the plight of enslaved people, onto the concert stage, where they are revered as masterful examples of uniquely American music. In 2017, the Harry T. Burleigh Society was founded to advance Burleigh studies "through scholarship and performance."
Simpson, Anne Key. "Hard Trials: The Life and Music of Harry T. Burleigh." Composers of North America, no. 8. Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1990. https://lccn.loc.gov/90038249
Snyder, Jean E. Harry T. Burleigh: from the spiritual to the Harlem Renaissance. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016. https://lccn.loc.gov/2015038368