Henry Thacker Burleigh, born December 2, 1866 in Erie Pennsylvania to free-born parents, Burleigh learned plantation melodies from his maternal grandfather who had been a slave. Working to supplement the family's income, the young Burleigh used his rich baritone to garner a number of singing jobs in local churches and civic events before winning a scholarship in 1892 to the prestigious National Conservatory of Music in New York, which was then headed by the Czech composer, Antonin Dvo?ák. There he took voice and lessons in composition with Antonin Dvorek. He also played double bass in the Conservatory's orchestra.
In 1893, he assisted Dvo?ák. Most of the work that Burleigh did for Dvo?ák was copy work, transferring the manuscript of Dvo?ák's 9th symphony for the parts for various instruments. However, Burleigh's role in introducing Dvo?ák to African American folk music was substantial.
Nine months after arriving in New York City, Burleigh appeared in two Grand Encampment Concerts at the Metropolitan Churchin Washington, D.C. as "the celebrated Western baritone.
At the Conservatory,Burleigh sang for the Czech master the spirituals and minstrel songs of the mid-19th century. So moved by his renditions was Dvo?ák that he urged the young African American to assemble and set down the folk tradition of his slave ancestors.
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, 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. 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.
As a music editor for G. Ricordi, an Italian music publisherthat had offices in New York, Burleigh began to publish these spirituals in 1911. In his 1916 collection, Jubilee Songs of the United States, he arranged the African-American melodies for piano and voice. It became the standard recital fare for the great singers of the day, as well as repertoire for vocal ensembles such as the Fisk JubileeSingers and the Hampton Singers. It includes Burleigh's well-known arrangement of the spiritual "Deep River." The success of these arrangements created a positive climate for Burleigh'soriginal songs and other choral and chamber compositions--over 200 works in all--including a setting of Walt Whitman's "Ethiopia Saluting theColors" (1915).
His works are recognized in his arrangements used in Henry E. Krehbiel's 1914 collection, Afro-American Folk songs, a Study in Racial and National Music, "By an' By" (1917), "Go Down Moses" (1917), "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" (1917), and an Old Songs Hymnal in 1929.
Burleigh also made the first formal orchestral arrangements for more than 100 Negro spirituals, including Nobody Knows (the Trouble I'veSeen).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). In many ways, the popularity of Burleigh's settings contributed to an explosion of popularity for the genre during the 1920s.
In addition to composing and editing, Burleigh retained the post of baritone soloist at St. George's Episcopal Church in New York from 1894 to 1946; was the first African American chosen as soloist at Temple Emanu-El, a New York synagogue; won acclaim as a recitalist who sometimes accompanied himself on the piano; toured Europe; and gave command performances for royalty. Over the years, he performed for such dignitaries as the King and Queen of England and President Theodore Roosevelt.
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. In 1944, members of St. George's (of New York City) recognized him 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.
Burleigh also did a special broadcast performance over a local radio station, for New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. Illness forced his retirement assoloist in 1946. His son, Alston, placed him first in a Long Island rest home then to a nursing home in Stamford, Connecticut, in 1948. On September 12, 1949, Burleigh died of heart failure at the age of 82.
His funeral was held at St. George's and was attended by 2,000 people. The pall bearers included composers Hall Johnson, Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, William C. Handy, and Cameron White. Burleigh wasbest known for his arrangements of the Negro spiritual "Deep River".
Burleigh is honored with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) on September 11.
His songs include:
- Just Awearyin' for You, w. Frank Lebby Stanton (1894) m. Burleigh, not to be confused with Carrie Jacobs-Bond's more popular 1901 tune to the same lyrics.
- I Love My Jean (Robert Burns poem, 1914)
- Jean (1914), w. Frank Lebby Stanton m. H. T. Burleigh.
- Saracen Songs (1914)
- The Prayer (1915)
- The Young Warrior (poem of James Weldon Johnson, 1916)
- Ethiopia Saluting the Colors (poem of Walt Whitman, 1916)
- Little Mother of Mine (1917)
- Dear Old Pal of Mine (1918)
- Under a Blazing Star (1918)
- In the Great Somewhere (1919)
- Five Songs (poems of Lawrence Hope, 1919)
- Lovely Dark and Lonely One (poem of Langston Hughes, 1935).
Burleigh was a beloved and respected artist, and his career and compositions did a great deal to breakdown color barriers and further the understanding of and appreciation for the role African-American music has played in the larger history of American music. His arrangements brought the spirituals and "sorrow songs" (as W.E.B.Du Bois called them) out of their earlier home, plantation, and minstrel settings and onto the classical concert stage, where they were performed by black and white singers alike.
His own songs enriched the repertoire with a deep sensitivity to text and emotion, as well as a singer's sense of the dramatic, while his career as a performer did a great deal to pave the way for artists like Roland Hayes, Paul Robeson, Carol Brice, Margaret Bonds, William Grant Still and Marian Anderson.
Compiled from http://www.songofamerica.net/cgi-bin/iowa/composer/3.html, Wikipedia, and Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I HearAmerica Singing.
Photo: 1927, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Digital ID: cph 3c14982.