Harry Thacker "Harry" Burleigh

Harry Thacker "Harry" Burleigh

born on 2/12/1866 in Erie, PA, United States

died on 12/9/1949 in Stamford, CT, United States

Links www.afrovoices.com (English, German)

Harry Burleigh

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
Harry Burleigh

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 life and education

Burleigh was born in Erie, Pennsylvania. With the aid of a scholarship (obtained with the help of Francis MacDowell,[1] the mother of composer Edward MacDowell), Burleigh was accepted to the prestigious National Conservatory of Music in New York, eventually playing double bass in the Conservatory's orchestra. In 1893, he assisted the Czech composer Antonín Dvoák. Most of the work that Burleigh did for Dvoák was copy work, transferring the manuscript of Dvoák's 9th symphony for the parts for various instruments. However, Burleigh did have a role in introducing Dvoák to African-American folk music. Despite the fact that much of the melodic material of the symphony can be traced to Dvoák's homeland, and that Dvoák himself perceived many of the "American" tunes in it as being Native American, it has been claimed: "The first time a Negro song became a major theme in a great symphonic work... was in 1893, when Antonín Dvoák's New World Symphony was played".[2]

Though at first he was denied entrance to the Conservatory due to low grades, Mrs. MacDowell (the registrar) insisted that Burleigh try his entrance exam again. Days later, he received a scholarship. To help earn a small income during his years there, Burleigh was known to work for Mrs. MacDowell as a handyman, cleaning and working on anything she needed. According to some, Burleigh would sing spirituals while cleaning the halls of the Conservatory, which caught the attention of Dvoák, who invited Burleigh to sing to him. It has been alleged that this interaction with Burleigh inspired Dvoák to write down the spirituals, which he eventually incorporated into his New World Symphony.[3]

Singing career

Burleigh began his singing career as the baritone in his familys quartet. By the time Burleigh left Erie in January 1892, he was singing with the citys 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.[4]

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.[2] 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.[2]

Arrangements and compositions

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 began to be a music editor for G. Ricordi, an Italian music publisher that had 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.[5] 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. 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.


Through the 1920s and 1930s, Burleigh continued to promote the spirituals through publications, lectures, and arrangements. His lifelong advocacy for the spiritual eclipsed his singing career, and his arrangements of art songs. With the success of Roland Hayes, Marian Anderson, and Paul Robeson, among others, his seminal role in carving out a place on America's recitals had been 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.

He was also the 1917 winner of the NAACP's Spingarn Medal, which is awarded annually by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for outstanding achievement by an African American.

Burleigh died from heart failure on September 12, 1949.[6]

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 Billboards 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.

Works by Harry Burleigh

Violin and piano

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


  • From the Southland (1914)

Art Songs

  • "Just Awearyin' for You", w. Frank Lebby Stanton (1894) m. Burleigh, not to be confused with Carrie Jacobs-Bond's more popular 1901 tune to the same lyrics[7]
  • "I Love My Jean" (Robert Burns poem, 1914)
  • Jean (1914), w. Frank Lebby Stanton m. H. T. Burleigh[8]
  • Saracen Songs (1914)
  • The Prayer (1915)
  • "The Young Warrior" (poem of James Weldon Johnson, 1916)
  • "Ethiopia Saluting the Colors" (poem of Walt Whitman, 1916)
  • Little Mother of Mine (1917)
  • Dear Old Pal of Mine (1918)
  • Under a Blazing Star (1918)
  • In the Great Somewhere (1919)
  • Five Songs (poems of Lawrence Hope, 1919)
  • "Lovely Dark and Lonely One" (poem of Langston Hughes, 1935)


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Eileen Southern. The Music of Black Americans: A History, W. W. Norton & Co..
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Current Biography Yearbook 1941, p. 120121, H. W. Wilson, The Bronx, New York.
  3. Simpson, Anne Key (1990). Hard Trials: The Life and Music of Harry T. Burleigh, p. 1015, Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc..
  4. Snyder, Jean E. (2004-09-22). "Harry T. Burleigh, "one of Erie's most popular church singers".". Black Music Research Journal.
  5. http://www.oremus.org/hymnal/i/i1236.html Accessed 2011 December 11.
  6. Afrocentric Voices: H.T. Burleigh Biography
  7. 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.
  8. Dedicated to Mrs. James Speyer, Item 12241, high voice in E-flat (Philadelphia: Theodore Presser Company, 1914).

External links

This page was last modified 27.04.2014 09:09:39

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