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  • Writer's pictureJohn Michael Cooper


[This is the fourth in a series of posts of “blogified” short entries from the forthcoming second, enlarged edition of my Historical Dictionary of Romantic Music [Lanham, Maryland] – i.e., entries whose style is lightly adapted to make them more blog-friendly. For an explanation of where this little series of posts comes from and why I’m doing it, see here. Let me reiterate here that because of the size/space restrictions of the book – it’s a one-volume dictionary, not an encyclopedia, or even book chapter – every entry is brief. My hope is that the entries will be “appetizers,” jumping-off points for further exploration by interested readers. If the entry leaves you wanting more, that is by design.

(Boldface text will be cross-referenced in the book itself.)]


BURLEIGH, HARRY (T.) [Henry Thacker] (1866-1949). U.S. composer, singer, teacher, arranger, and ethnographer of the Late Romantic Generation; one of the first Black American musicians to become internationally recognized as a singer, composer, and arranger. He was the grandson of a slave who purchased his freedom but (according to an interview Burleigh gave in 1944) had eventually gone blind because a lash of a whipping given as punishment for having been found with a book while enslaved had struck him in the eye. His father, Henry Thacker Burleigh, [Sr.], settled in Erie, Pennsylvania, a lively sanctuary and transfer point on the Underground Railroad, married his mother, Elizabeth Waters, a musician and a graduate of the integrated Avery College who taught at Erie’s “Colored School” and inculcated in young Harry a strong appreciation of freedom, equality, education, and music: he volunteered and fought in the Union Army and became a member of a newly formed Equal Rights League after the war, working for full citizenship for Black Americans and lobbying to “remove both race and gender barriers from all state elections.” The parents were known for their singing as well as their love of music and education generally, and it is likely that by the early 1880s they knew James M. Trotters widely disseminated book Music and Some Highly Musical People. In the meantime, young Harry had become a sought-after singer in local churches and synagogues and had also learned guitar, piano, and bass viol. The family values focusing on education and music converged in 1891, when, at the relatively late age of twenty-five, he applied to New York’s National Conservatory of Music and was accepted there on a scholarship for the Artist’s Course. He left Erie for New York in January, 1892 and would graduate in 1896.

Burleigh’s move to New York positioned him to study music formally with the faculty of the Conservatory (most notably Dvořák, whose musical nationalism resonated with Burleigh’s knowledge and belief in the artistic beauty of Black American music) and brought him a level of prominence that was impossible in his native Erie. In addition to his work with Dvořák and his teaching of Black music to the Bohemian Director of the School and his work as a copyist for Dvořák, he secured a position as baritone soloist for St. George’s Protestant Episcopal Church, an all-White church, in 1894 – a position he would hold for an astonishing fifty-two years, finally retiring in 1946. In that position he began an annual tradition of singing a Vesper service of spirituals that attracted large crowds He also sang in New York’s Temple Emanu-El, a Jewish synagogue, from 1900-1925. He became a friend and collaborator of Will Marion Cook and worked with Cook, Ida B. Wells, and Frederick Douglass in planning the “Colored Day” of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, befriended and toured with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (who called Burleigh “the best singer of [his] songs”), and in 1898 he published his first volume of songs (New York: G. Schirmer), followed by his first published arrangement of a spiritual, “Water in Water,” in 1900 (New York: Ricordi). He sang spirituals on tour with Booker T. Washington from 1900 to 1915 and in 1908 and 1909 he sang for King Edward VII and other members of the British aristocracy. Although he made only one confirmed recording (“Go Down, Moses,” in 1919), from the beginning of the twentieth century to the end of his performing career his name was internationally known as an authoritative advocate for spirituals as well as European and American art songs and opera arias. He received honorary doctoral degrees from Atlanta University and Howard University, and in 1917 he was awarded the Springarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He retired at the age of eighty in 1946 and died of a heart attack in 1949; his funeral was attended by some two thousand people. The date of his last full day of life, 11 September, is now a feast day in the U.S. Episcopal Church.

INTERLUDE 1: Although Burleigh is best known for his vocal music, his instrumental works are also marvelous. Here's a recording of the Southland Sketches for violin and piano, done by Helena Logah (violin) and Mackenzie Paget (piano):


Burleigh’s compositional output encompasses more than two hundred works. Among these are three instrumental compositions (Six Plantation Melodies for violin and piano, [unpublished, 1901]; From the Southland for piano solo [New York: William Maxwell Music, 1910] and Southland Sketches for violin and piano [New York: G. Ricordi, 1916]) that, while less well known than his vocal works, poetically translate the styles of idioms of southern Black vocal music for instruments. The vocal compositions include works for mixed chorus, men’s chorus, and women’s chorus (among them his iconic arrangement of Deep River), art songs (e.g., Adoration, Dream Land: A Cradle Song, Ethiopia Saluting the Colors, and the exquisitely beautiful Lovely Dark and Lonely One on a text by Langston Hughes; Burleigh’s last art song [1934]), and song cycles (Saracen Songs, 1914; Five Songs on Poems by Laurence Hope, 1915; and Passionale, 1915).

INTERLUDE 2: Here is a recording of Burleigh's last art song, Lovely Dark and Lonely One, on a text by Langston Hughes. Although I love many of Burleigh's art songs, this one may be the most beautiful one of all:


Burleigh's publications and arrangements of African American spirituals are considered his most important contributions in this capacity, however. These were the products not only of his intimate and extensive experience with spirituals in Black communities from his earliest youth, but also considerable ethnographic and hymnographic research (Prof. Brian Moon of the Fred Fox School of Music at the University of Arizona has done a superb article and dissertation on this subject). Over the course of his career he transcribed more than six hundred spirituals and folksongs; among the fruits of these labors was the Old Songs Hymnal: Words and Melodies from the State of Georgia (New York: Century, 1929), a collection of 187 spirituals in simple four-part harmonies, based partly on his collaborator, Dorothy Bolton’s, memories and partly on extensive in-person interviews and transcriptions of melodies and texts.

Burleigh’s own arrangements of spirituals were criticized by some, including Nathaniel Dett, Alain Locke, and James Weldon Johnson, for what Locke called “a dangerous tendency toward over-elaboration,” but Burleigh himself, possessed of a deep and powerful lifelong knowledge of the spirituals, clearly did not consider that his art-style efforts to make them “comprehensible” to non-Black audiences in any way compromised the tunes or obscured their heritage. He considered blues “cousins” of the spirituals and valid expressions of Black experience but also felt that their popularity, like that of jazz, minstrel songs, and ragtime, had overshadowed that of spirituals, which he (like W.E.B. Du Bois) considered the primary and most artistically rich repertoire of Black folk: “spirituals . . . will never live as jazz, but they will always be in the first rank of the world’s folk music.” As both arranger and performer he stands today as one of the most influential advocates for the spiritual – a repertoire that had been born of the sorrows and depredations of enslaved people and, before him, had been exploited and commercialized. Through his tireless championing of them in performance and in print, he helped them to become a repertoire whose artistic worth and historical significance are universally considered undeniable – and the influence of his own arrangements on those of other composers such as Florence Price and Margaret Bonds is a topic that still awaits full scholarly consideration.

INTERLUDE 3: Here is Omar Bowey's surpassingly beautiful rendition of Burleigh's arrangement of Deep River. I've heard this song, and this arrangement, countless times -- but this performance very nearly brings me to tears still today:


Circumstances suggest that Burleigh also is entitled to another sort of music-historical significance – namely, for conveying James M. Trotter’s understanding of the artistic potential and music-historical significance of Black vernacular musics as the source of an authentically and distinctively “American” (i.e., U.S.) music to Antonín Dvořák, thus providing the basis for Dvořák’s widely publicized proclamations to that effect in two articles in The New York Herald in May, 1893. Burleigh’s role in introducing the Bohemian composer to Black vernacular styles, specifically spirituals, is well known; but his attitudes and prior education make it likely that he also knew Trotter’s Music and Some Highly Musical People and shared Trotter’s perspectives, which anticipate Dvořák’s proclamations by fifteen years. (Jean E. Snyder has demonstrated that Trotter’s book and many of the artists it celebrates would have been known to Burleigh’s family.) It is improbable that Burleigh, in his well-documented singing of Black American spirituals and songs for Dvořák and his discussions of Black American music with the older composer, did not pass along to his instructor at the National Conservatory the perspective that he had gained via Trotter. If he did, then Dvořák’s finding that “the negro melodies . . . must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States. . . . [and are] all that is needed for a great and noble school of music” – was in fact a paraphrase of Trotter’s work that was made possible only through the agency of Harry T. Burleigh. And if Burleigh was in fact the agent for Dvořák’s understanding of Trotter’s prophecy, then the attribution of Trotter’s insight to Dvořák is false, another iteration of the racist practice of crediting White folk for Black knowledge and art. Regardless of whether Burleigh knew Trotter’s book, his role in the flourishing of classical music informed by Black vernacular styles – represented, as Joseph Horowitz demonstrates in his book Dvořák’s Prophecy (New York: W.W. Norton, 2021), in the music of Margaret Bonds (1913-72), Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, William Levi Dawson (1899-1990), R. Nathaniel Dett, Florence B. Price, and Burleigh himself, among many others – is greater than has been previously acknowledged.

Harry T. Burleigh faced racism every day of his life – from the laws that governed where he could live and dine, and enter and exit, which elevators he could use, to racist dismissals of his music (including that of one critic who praised his songs but for that reason said that they were “more white than black”). That was rose to such sustained international notoriety despite the prejudices and depredations he endured because of his race makes his achievement all the more extraordinary and compelling.

To learn more about Harry Burleigh:


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