|| "Ethiopia Saluting the Colors" (1915) ||
Although he is best remembered for his arrangements of African American spirituals, such as "Deep River" (1917), Harry T. Burleigh also made significant contributions to the American art song. Composed during the height of his success, Burleigh’s "Ethiopia Saluting the Colors" (1915), to a text by Walt Whitman, is a dramatic account of an African American woman, or "Ethiopian" (by the mid-nineteenth century, "Ethiopians” had become synonymous with “Africans” in the Western world), and her chance meeting with a Union soldier.
“Ethiopia” is an old black slave woman who salutes the American flag as she sees General Sherman’s troops march by, all the while she herself is being watched by a soldier. The colors in her turban—yellow, red, and green—represent those found in the Ethiopian flag. Burleigh musically depicts the setting with a precise, militaristic accompaniment, and with the quotation of the Civil War tune, "Marching through Georgia". One of Burleigh’s most ambitious songs and one he later orchestrated, "Ethiopia Saluting the Colors" is worthy of inclusion in today’s concert repertoire.
|| About Henry [Harry] Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949) ||
Although his name is relatively unknown, Harry Thacker Burleigh (named Henry after his father) 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 December 2, 1866, Burleigh received his first musical training from his mother. After discovering Burleigh’s musical talent, Elizabeth Russell, a bank messenger who was his mother’s employer, gave the youth a job as a doorman during the musicales she hosted at her home. This afforded Burleigh the opportunity to hear guest performers such as Teresa Carreño and Italo Campanini. In 1892, at the age of twenty-six, Burleigh received a scholarship (with some intervention from Mrs. Frances MacDowell, mother of famed American composer Edward MacDowell) to the National Conservatory of Music in New York.
The years Burleigh spent at the Conservatory greatly influenced his career, due mostly to his association and friendship with Antonín Dvořák, the Conservatory’s director. After spending countless hours recalling and performing the African American spirituals and plantation songs he learned from his maternal grandfather to Dvořák, Burleigh was encouraged by the elder composer to preserve these melodies in his own compositions. In turn, Dvořák’s use of the spirituals, "Goin’ Home" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", in his Symphony No. 9 in E minor (From the New World), was probably influenced by his sessions with Burleigh. In addition, Burleigh served as copyist for Dvořák, 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 black, 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 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 worked as an editor for music publisher G. Ricordi. His success was enhanced through several publications, including Ethiopia Saluting the Colors (1915), a collection entitled Jubilee Songs of the USA (1916), and his arrangement of "Deep River" (1917), for which he is best remembered.
Burleigh died at age 82 on September 12,1949. Over 2,000 mourners attended the funeral of the man who successfully combined the melodies from his own heritage with that of art music. Burleigh’s compositions and arrangements of African American spirituals transported the music of African Americans from their plantation and minstrel settings onto the concert stage, where they have been enjoyed and appreciated by music lovers worldwide.