Henry (Harry) Thacker Burleigh (1866 – 1949)
This is another repeat from last year. While reading through it recently I was reminded, once again, of the influence African American culture has had in various areas of American culture including the arts. A shout out to my seminary music professor, Dr. Singleton, for introducing me to the Burleigh hymn tune, McKee, used for the hymn, “In Christ There is No East or West,” which has become my standard for this hymn.
Henry Thacker Burleigh was born in Erie, Pennsylvania, on December 2, 1866, the second son of Henry Thacker Burleigh and Elizabeth (Waters) Burleigh. His father was a laborer while his mother worked as a domestic servant because she was unable to get a teaching position despite her college education and fluency in French and Greek. Burleigh acquired his knowledge of Negro Spirituals from his maternal grandfather, Hamilton Waters, who had been born in slavery but was freed after being beaten and partially blinded. He worked as Erie’s town crier and lamplighter and Burleigh, known throughout his life as “Harry,” would accompany him. As he performed his duties, he sang plantation songs to young Harry, thus passing on a music–the Negro spiritual–that his grandson would one day make known around the world.
Burleigh’s mother, who he credited as his strongest supporter, recognized his strong desire to hear music. She gained permission from her employer, Mrs. Elizabeth Russell to have Harry answer the door when guests arrived for concerts. Young Burleigh heard several prominent performers who gave recitals at the home of Mrs. Russell.
Growing up, Burleigh took several jobs as a laborer to help support his family. Music, however, was his steady companion. He sang while at work, and he took advantage of any opportunity to hear musicians who came to town. He sang at school and in the choirs at St. Paul’s and Park Presbyterian churches and the Reform Jewish Temple. After graduating from high school in 1887, Burleigh continued to improve his skills as a musician while he was employed as a stenographer for two area businesses.
In 1892, at the age of 26, Burleigh heard that the National Conservatory of Music was holding auditions for a scholarship. Burleigh journeyed to New York, departing Erie with only $30, which he had acquired through gifts and loans, and a letter of recommendation from Mrs. Russell. The adjudicators at his audition concluded that he fell just below the standards required to receive the scholarship. However, Frances MacDowell, the school’s registrar and an acquaintance of Mrs. Russell’s, intervened, and Burleigh eventually received a scholarship.
The subjects that Burleigh studied at the conservatory included voice, harmony, and counterpoint. He also played in the orchestra and was its librarian. Because his scholarship only covered his tuition, he also had to work just to survive. Among the contacts that Burleigh made during his years at the conservatory were composer Edward MacDowell, son of Burleigh’s benefactor, and composer/conductor Victor Herbert. However, it was his association with Czech composer Antonin Dvořák that most strongly influenced Burleigh’s career as a composer.
Dvořák came to the United States in 1892 as the new director of the conservatory. He learned of the spiritual through his contacts with Burleigh. During Dvořák’s term as director, he used the melodies he heard Burleigh sing in his compositions. His major work of this period was his “Symphony no. 9 From the New World,” which premiered in December 1893. He used portions of one of the spirituals, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” as a theme within the symphony’s first movement. Burleigh spent many evenings singing the spirituals of his youth for Dvořák as well as manuscript copying for the composer.
Two significant events occurred in 1894. The first, Burleigh, along with soprano Sissieretta Jones, were the featured soloists in Dvořák’s arrangement of “Old Folks at Home,” presented in New York’s Madison Square Garden. The second event had a major impact on Burleigh’s life. He auditioned for the baritone soloist position at St. George’s Episcopal Church of New York. Although there was much debate about hiring a Negro to sing in the affluent parish, he was selected for the post over numerous other applicants. The beginning of this 52-year relationship marked the first time that Burleigh’s income allowed him to concentrate on his studies. He made several influential contacts, including entrepreneur J. Pierpont Morgan, who arranged additional engagements for Burleigh.
The next six years were very busy for Burleigh, both professionally and personally. In addition to his work as a singer, he completed his studies at the conservatory and taught sight-singing there from 1895 until 1898. He married poet Louise Alston in 1898; their son, Alston, was born the following year. This was also the year that three of Burleigh’s early songs, on texts by his wife, were first published by G. Schirmer. In 1900, he became an editor for G. Ricordi, and he was selected as the first African-American to serve as soloist for Temple Emanu-El, an affluent New York synagogue.
Burleigh continued and expanded his contacts with the Black musical and academic community. He was a guest lecturer and performer at Black colleges and universities. He became acquainted with celebrated personalities such as composers Will Marion Cook, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and Robert Nathaniel Dett, and academicians Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. By 1916, Burleigh had published several works, mostly art songs. Most notable amongst these were “Jean” (1903), “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors” (1915), and the song cycles “Saracen Songs” (1914) and “Five Songs” by Laurence Hope (1915). He also wrote a few vocal and instrumental works based on the plantation melodies he had learned as a child. However, his 1916 setting of the spiritual, “Deep River,” is considered the first work of that genre to be written in art song form specifically for performance by a trained singer. Burleigh commented on his motivation for setting spirituals,
“. . . In Negro spirituals my race has pure gold, and they should be taken as the Negro’s contribution to artistic possessions. In them we show a spiritual security as old as the ages. . . . These songs always denote a personal relationship. It is ‘my Saviour,’ ‘my sorrow,’ ‘my kingdom.’ The personal note is ever present. America’s only original and distinctive style of music is destined to be appreciated more and more.”
“Deep River,” and other spiritual settings became very popular to concert performers and recording artists, both black and white. It was soon normal for recitals to end with a group of spirituals. Musicians such as Roland Hayes, Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson made these songs a part of their repertoires.
There are various estimates of the number of songs Burleigh wrote. In all Burleigh made almost 190 choral arrangements and composed over 260 works for solo voice. The revenue from publication of Burleigh’s works helped pay for his extensive travels, including several trips to Europe, and his studies of languages. Over the years he performed for such dignitaries as the king and queen of England and President Theodore Roosevelt. He encouraged the careers of young musicians: like Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Carol Brice, Margaret Bonds, and William Grant Still, to name a few.
Burleigh was a charter member of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) when it formed in 1914 and became a member of its board of directors in 1941. He received a number of honors, including the Spingarn Medal in 1917, and honorary degrees from Atlanta University and Howard University for his contributions as a vocalist and composer. In 1944, members of St. George’s recognized his many years of service as soloist with gifts of $1,500 and a silver-banded cane. Later that year, he gave the fiftieth annual performance of Jean-Baptiste Faure’s “The Palms” at both morning and afternoon services, and he did a special performance of the work, broadcast over a local radio station, for New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia.
Illness forced Burleigh to retire as soloist in 1946. On September 12, 1949, Harry Burleigh died of heart failure at the age of 82. His funeral was held at St. George’s and was attended by 2,000 mourners. Some of his choral and solo settings were sung during the service, and the pall bearers included composers Hall Johnson, Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, William C. Handy, and Cameron White.