[Harry Thacker Burleigh, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing right], 1927. Prints and Photographs Reading Room, Library of Congress.
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 2 December 1866, Burleigh received his first music 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 at the musicales she hosted in her home. This afforded Burleigh the opportunity to hear guest performers such as Teresa Carreño and Italo Campanini. Although he had no formal training, his talent as a singer led to employment as a soloist in several Erie churches and synagogues. 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'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 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 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 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), for which he is best remembered.
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. As his spiritual arrangements become increasingly popular with concert soloists, a tradition of concluding concerts with a set of spirituals was established.
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 12 September 1949. Over 2,000 mourners attended the funeral of the man who had successfully combined the melodies of his own heritage with those of serious art music. Burleigh's compositions and arrangements of African-American spirituals transported the music of the "colored folk" from their plantation and minstrel settings onto the concert stage, where they have been enjoyed and appreciated by people of all races.
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.