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Biography of

Harry T. Burleigh

2 dec 1866 (Erie) - 12 dec 1949 (Stamford)
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Harry Burleigh
Birth name Henry Thacker Burleigh
Born December 2, 1866(1866-12-02)
Erie, Pennsylvania, United States
Origin New York City
Died December 12, 1949 (aged 83)
New York, New York, United States
Occupations Singer, composer, arranger

Henry "Harry" Thacker Burleigh (December 2, 1866 – December 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 Dvořák. Most of the work that Burleigh did for Dvořák was copy work, transferring the manuscript of Dvořák's 9th symphony for the parts for various instruments. However, Burleigh's role in introducing Dvořák to African American folk music was substantial. It was written that "The first time a Negro song became a major theme in a great symphonic work... was in 1893, when Antonín Dvořák's New World Symphony was played" [2].

At first being denied entrance to the Conservatory due to low grades, registrar Frances MacDowell insisted that Burleigh give his entrance exam a second try. Within days of his second attempt, Burleigh received a scholarship to attend the National Conservatory of Music in New York. 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. Burleigh would sing spirituals while cleaning the halls of the Conservatory, which soon caught the attention of Dvořák when he would pass by. Intrigued by his voice, Dvořák frequently invited Burleigh over to sing to him after supper and ultimately learn more about him. This constant interaction with Burleigh and his voice inspired Dvořák to write down these spirituals, which he eventually incorporated these songs into his “New World Symphony”. As Burleigh puts it, “it was the first time in the history of music that a Negro’s song had been a major theme in a great symphonic work”.[3]

The constant interaction with Burleigh inspired Dvořák to try and create a nationalistic school of music during his time at the Conservatory, basing his principles off of the importance of Afro-American and Native American themes. Burleigh became an inspiration to Dvořák, providing countless songs and theories for Dvořák to work off of, and also supplied Burleigh with ideas for later compositions of his own.

Singing career

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.” [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.

After publishing several versions of "Deep River" in 1916 and 1917, Burleigh became known for his arrangements of the spiritual for voice and piano. Prior to this time, spirituals were sung only by ensembles and choruses. His arrangements were the first to make spirituals available to concert singers[1].

Burleigh also made the first formal orchestral arrangements for more than 100 Negro spirituals, including Nobody Knows (the Trouble I've Seen)[2]. Burleigh's best-known compositions are his arrangements of these spirituals, as art songs. They 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 life-long 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. The Spingarn Medal is awarded annually by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for outstanding achievement by an African American.

The award, which consists of a gold medal, was created by Joel Elias Spingarn, Chairman of the Board of the NAACP in 1914. It was first awarded to biologist Ernest E. Just in 1915, and has been given each year thereafter, with the exception of 1938.


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

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f Eileen Southern. The Music of Black Americans: A History. W. W. Norton & Co.. p. 284. 
  2. ^ a b c d Current Biography Yearbook 1941. H. W. Wilson, The Bronx, New York. pp. 120–121. 
  3. ^ 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. 
  4. ^ Snyder, Jean E. (2004-09-22). "Harry T. Burleigh, "one of Erie's most popular church singers".". Black Music Research Journal. 
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ Dedicated to Mrs James Speyer, Item 12241, high voice in E-flat (Philadelphia: Theodore Presser Company, 1914).

External links

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Harry T. Burleigh. Allthough most Wikipedia articles provide accurate information accuracy can not be guaranteed.
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