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Harry T. Burleigh

Harry T. BurleighHENRY (HARRY) THACKER BURLEIGH (1866 – 1949) was a composer, arranger and soloist who popularized African-American spirituals and bridged cultures and races by using them as inspiration for new music.

Born in Erie, Pa., Mr. Burleigh received his earliest musical training from his mother and musical influence from his maternal grandfather, a former slave who sang plantation songs to his grandson while doing his work. In 1885, at age 18, Mr. Burleigh joined the first vested choir of men and boys at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, which performed at weddings, funerals and church services. To add to the family income, he also began singing with the choir of the First Presbyterian Church and that of the Reformed Jewish Temple.

Mr. Burleigh moved to New York City in 1892 at age 26 — history records he made the trip with between $25 and $30 and a letter of recommendation — to audition for the National Conservatory of Music, where his teachers included Temple Emanu-El Choral Director Max Spicker. While at the conservatory, Mr. Burleigh befriended composer Antonín Dvorák, who was the school’s new director, and it was Mr. Burleigh’s association with Mr. Dvorák that proved the greatest influence on Mr. Burleigh’s career as a composer.

It is said that Mr. Burleigh spent countless hours singing for Mr. Dvorák the African-American spirituals taught to him by his grandfather, and it was Mr. Dvorák who encouraged Mr. Burleigh to preserve those melodies in his own compositions. It also is said that Mr. Dvorák’s use of the spirituals “Goin’ Home” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” in Symphony no. 9 in E minor (“From the New World”) was influenced by his time with Mr. Burleigh. Mr. Burleigh also worked as a manuscript copier for Mr. Dvorák, which served as training for Mr. Burleigh’s future work as a music editor.

In 1894, Mr. Burleigh went on what was probably the second most important audition of his life: for a position as baritone soloist at St. George’s Episcopal Church of New York. Despite objections by the congregation to his being black, Mr. Burleigh was selected for the position over many other applicants, and he stayed there for more than 50 years — missing only one performance in that time. Mr. Burleigh’s role at St. George’s opened doors to influential persons, including entrepreneur J.P. Morgan, who arranged other engagements for Mr. Burleigh, which sparked the start of his very successful career as a singer.

Four years later, Mr. Burleigh married poet Louise Alston. Their son, Alston, was born the next year (1899), which also was the year that three of Mr. Burleigh’s early songs (with texts by his wife) were published by G. Schirmer. (Over the course of Mr. Burleigh’s career, it is estimated that he wrote as many as 300 songs.)

In 1900, Mr. Burleigh became the first African-American soloist at Temple Emanu-El in New York City. He remained a soloist at Emanu-El for 25 years. And, it was during his time at Emanu-El that he arranged the spiritual “Deep River” — one of his most well-known works — for our Temple Emanu-El Choir using the text from Psalm 19: “May the Words of My Mouth...”

Mr. Burleigh retired from singing in 1946 because of illness, and he died of heart failure on September 12, 1949, at age 82. More than 2,000 mourners attended his funeral at St. George’s Episcopal Church, but despite Mr. Burleigh’s once-great success and popularity, his name is relatively unknown today. According to the Harry T. Burleigh Society, Mr. Burleigh lay many years in an unmarked grave. On May 28, 1994, he was returned to his hometown of Erie, Pa. — 102 years after he left home for New York City.

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