Burleigh, Harry T.

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Harry T. Burleigh

Composer, singer, music arranger

Harry (Henry) T. Burleigh was a renowned scholar of African American music and a pioneer in arranging spirituals for solo voice with accompaniment. His settings of the spirituals were sung by many of the acclaimed soloists of his day, including Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, John McCormack, Roland Hayes, and others. The tradition, which continues into the early twenty-first century, of including a set of spirituals in a recital was probably initiated in his day, and very often the arrangements were by Burleigh.

Harry T. Burleigh was born in Erie, Pennsylvania on December 2, 1866. He was nurtured with spirituals and plantation songs as a child; his maternal grandfather, Hamilton Waters, the town crier and lamplighter in Erie, sang to young Harry the songs he learned as a former slave. Harry's love of music was also supported by his mother, Elizabeth, who worked as a domestic servant in Erie. Her employer, Elizabeth Russell, frequently gave recitals at her home, featuring prominent soloists. One of these was given by the famous pianist, Rafael Joseffy, and this recital was heard by young Harry, standing outside the window in the snow. Harry was subsequently given the role of informal doorman, welcoming guests to her recitals.

Burleigh graduated from high school in 1887 and continued to improve as a musician, singing at school, in church choirs, and at the Reform Jewish Temple. He also worked at various office jobs in Erie, helping to support the family. In 1892 he decided to compete for a scholarship offered by the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. With Elizabeth Russell's help and his mother's support, he traveled to New York to take the required examinations, gaining admission upon appeal to the registrar. At the conservatory, he pursued a standard course of music studies, including voice lessons, sight-singing, and music history. He also played string bass and timpani in the orchestra, copied musical manuscripts, and served as orchestra librarian.

Burleigh Assists Dvorak

Burleigh was soon assigned the job of assisting composer Antonin Dvorak, who came to the United States in 1892 to accept the position of director of the National Conservatory. Dvorak soon learned of Burleigh's love of spirituals and African American folksongs. As a believer in a nation's musical heritage, Dvorak became enamored of these songs. He continually requested Burleigh to sing spirituals for him and wove parts of their melodies and harmonies into his Symphony No. 9, From the New World, which was first performed by the New York Phil-harmonic on December 15, l893. Dvorak, in addition, championed the cause of a national music, urging American composers to incorporate indigenous traditional music into their classical compositions.

Burleigh graduated from the conservatory in 1896 and continued to teach sight-singing there from 1895 to 1898. On several occasions Burleigh gave vocal recitals and lectured on spirituals at various locations, including black colleges and universities. According to Anne Key Simpson, in her biography Hard Times: The Life and Trials of Harry T. Burleigh, he frequently cited the New World Symphony as having spiritual elements and harmonic features, including the flatted seventh degree of the major scale, and reminiscences of specific portions of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" in the symphony's first movement.

Transitions to Professional Career

In 1894 Burleigh's career took a decidedly upward turn, when he auditioned and was accepted for the position of baritone soloist at St. George's Episcopal Church in lower Manhattan. He was the first African American to hold this position, and he served in it with great distinction for fifty years. In addition to the regular Sunday services, he performed as a soloist in many special concerts for the community of classical cantatas and oratorios. Among the highlights of his tenure was his annual performance, for fifty-two consecutive years, as soloist on Palm Sunday in the cantata The Palms, composed by Jean-Baptiste Faure.

In 1900 Burleigh accepted another appointment, as a soloist at Temple Emanu-El, serving there for twenty-five years (the first African American to hold this position). Burleigh was married in 1898 to the poet Louise Alston, who authored several song texts for him, including "Just My Love and I," among his first works, popular in his day and published by the William Maxwell Company in 1904. The Burleighs had one son, Alston, born in 1899. Burleigh became professionally interested in the works of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, including his cantata Hiawatha. A group of local singers soon assembled, began rehearsing the work, and on April 23, 1903, the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society performed the cantata at the Metropolitan AME Church in Washington, D.C.

Coleridge-Taylor was delighted with the success of the concert and accepted an invitation to come to the United States in 1904 to conduct a concert of his own music. Burleigh assisted with the arrangements. The tour began with a concert on November 16, in Convention Hall in Washington, D.C, including a performance of Hiawatha with Burleigh as a soloist. Additional concerts in Baltimore and Chicago followed, featuring songs and works by Coleridge-Taylor, Burleigh, and others. Coleridge-Taylor returned to the United States in 1906 for another series of concerts, again featuring Burleigh as soloist, in New York, Pittsburgh, Boston, and Norfolk, Connecticut. Coleridge-Taylor died in September 1912, and Burleigh, along with scholar and Pan Africanist W. E. B. Du Bois, singer Roland Hayes, and musician and author Maud Cuney-Hare, participated in a memorial concert in Boston on January 13, 1913. Fisk's Mozart Society (now the University Choir) performed Hiawatha with Burleigh as soloist at Fisk University on May 13, 1913.

Active Career Continues

Burleigh's active career as a performer, scholar, arranger, and composer continued until his retirement from St. George's Church in November, 1946. As a performer, he gave numerous recitals at private homes, churches, and educational institutions over the ensuing years. At one musical event, in about 1900, Burleigh performed at an occasion arranged under the auspices of Governor Theodore Roosevelt and stayed overnight in the governor's mansion in Albany, New York following the recital.

In arranging recitals and similar events, Burleigh received considerable support from J. Pierpont Morgan, the financier, who was a senior warden at St. George's Church. Early in Burleigh's tenure at St. George's, Morgan personally arranged private engagements in local homes of socially prominent persons for Burleigh, as well as at his own annual Christmas Eve celebrations at the Morgan mansion, which included the St. George's choir. In addition, Morgan and U.S. ambassador Whitelaw Reid were instrumental in helping to arrange a performance for King Edward VII and the Crown Princess of Sweden in 1908 during Burleigh's visit to London that year.

Burleigh's earnings from recitals and publication royalties enabled the Burleighs to travel abroad. They visited Europe seven or eight times over the years, visiting Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and other prominent persons involved in the arts. The trips included lectures, guest recitals, and scheduled business trips to Italy. There, Burleigh visited publisher G. Ricordi's home office in Milan. Burleigh was employed by Ricordi in their New York office as a music editor, and they published many of his compositions and arrangements.


Born in Erie, Pennsylvania on December 2
Matriculates on scholarship at National Conservatory of Music, New York; assists director Antonin Dvorak
Accepts position as baritone soloist at St. George's Episcopal Church, which he holds for more than fifty years
Graduates from conservatory
Marries Louise Alston
Accepts additional position at Temple Emanu-El
Arranges concert tour for English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, featuring Taylor's cantata Hiawatha, with Burleigh as soloist
Career as performer, scholar, arranger, and composer continues
Elected to Board of Directors, ASCAP, the first black member of the board
Celebration held on February 4 honors his fifty-year tenure at St. George's
Presents his fifty-second annual performance of The Palms; resigns in November
Dies of heart failure in nursing home in Stamford, Connecticut on September 12; funeral held at St. George's Church on September 14

In her biography, Hard Times, Simpson presents a catalogue of Burleigh's musical works by category. Under "Art Songs and Religious Songs," Simpson lists more than two hundred songs with lyrics by Louise Alston, Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson, Rudyard Kipling, Walt Whitman, and others. Among his frequently performed solo works were the cycles "The Saracen Songs" and "Passionale," with lyrics by Fred G. Bowles and James Weldon Johnson, respectively, and "Five Songs by Laurence Hope," with lyrics by Adela L. Cory.

Gains Recognition as Composer, Arranger, Soloist

Simpson's catalogue lists more than 150 spiritual arrangements and includes the "Old Songs Hymnal," containing more than two hundred hymns. The list of spirituals includes Burleigh's well known songs "Ride on, King Jesus," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "Steal Away," and "Stand Still, Jordan" (composed in 1926 and dedicated to Roland Hayes). "Deep River," probably his most famous work, was published in 1917 and dedicated to the contralto Mary Jordan, also a soloist at Temple Emanu-El. "Deep River" later acquired the status of virtually a "signature song" for the bass soloist Paul Robeson.

One of the founding members of ASCAP (The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers), Burleigh was elected to the Board of Directors in 1941, becoming the board's first black member. He was awarded the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP in 1917 for his achievements in the arts. He received an honorary Doctor of Music degree from Howard University in 1920, an honorary Master of Arts degree from Atlanta University, and the Harmon Foundation Award for distinguished achievement in 1917. Among the many outstanding performers who sang his works are Marian Anderson, Carol Brice, Roland Hayes, John McCormack, Mary Jordan, Abbie Mitchell, Paul Robeson, and Evan Williams.

On February 4, 1944, a special celebration was given at St. George's Church in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of Burleigh's tenure. He was presented a scroll and a gift of $1,500 by the parishioners. His home town of Erie, Pennsylvania was represented by the president of the Erie Club, who presented the honoree with a silver-banded cane on behalf of the club. Addresses were given by Bishop William Manning, Reverend Elmore McKee, and Burleigh in honor of the occasion. The choir performed a contrapuntal ode by Burleigh, "Ethiopia's Paean of Exultation," and Burleigh sang two spirituals: "I Don't Feel Noways Tired," and "Go Down, Moses." The attendees numbered about seven hundred, including many from Erie. Burleigh served St. George's Church a short time longer and presented his fifty-second annual performance of "The Palms" in 1946. Burleigh resigned and his resignation was accepted with deep regrets in November, 1946 by St. George's Church.

Feeling that Burleigh needed additional care, his son and daughter-in-law moved him to a convalescent home on Long Island in 1947. From there, he was moved to Stamford Hall, a private nursing home in Stamford, Connecticut. There, he was honored by his family with a surprise eighty-first birthday party. A portable organ was provided, and he sang his three favorite spirituals, "Go Down, Moses," "Were You There," and "I Know the Lord Laid His Hand on Me." Then, on March 24, 1948, the Howard University Choir, on tour, presented a full concert for Burleigh and three hundred invited guests at the nursing home, including two arrangements by Burleigh, "Were You There" and "My Lord, What a Morning."

Burleigh died of heart failure at Stamford Hall on September 12, 1949. His funeral was held at St. George's Church on September 14, attended by about two thousand persons. Rector emeritus Karl Reiland gave the eulogy, stressing Burleigh's contribution to the community and his great gifts as an artist. The music was provided by two combined choirs, featuring choral works by Burleigh, and soloists Carol Brice, Ernest McChesney, and Helen Phillips.

Burleigh was once asked by a music critic whether he preferred to be known as a singer or as a composer. According to Simpson in Hard Trials, he replied that he preferred to be known as an arranger of spirituals, for, "In them my race has pure gold, and they should be taken as the Negro's contribution to artistic possessions. In them we show a spiritual security as old as the ages."

In his creative output, Burleigh reflected the harmonic and melodic usages of his era, basically a romantic idiom. As a widely experienced vocalist, his ear for the voice rang true in arrangements that expertly supported and enhanced the melodic line. His idiomatic writing showed a great sensitivity for the lyrics and their soulful inflections, particularly in the spirituals that he knew so well. His harmonic pallet was varied, incisive, and imaginative. His works have worn well over time and remain fresh. They reflect his proud career, pursued on four levels: as composer, arranger, performer, and scholar.



Krehbiel, Henry E. Afro-American Folksongs. New York: G. Schirmer, 1914.

Levy, Alan. "Henry Thacker Burleigh." In American National Biography Vol. 3. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Overmyer, Grace. Famous American Composers. New York: Thomas Y Crowell, 1945.

Peress, Maurice. Dvorak to Duke Ellington. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Simpson, Anne Key. Hard Trials: The Life and Music of Harry T. Burleigh. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, 1990.

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans. New York: Norton, 1997.


Wichterman, Larry. "Pennsylvania Biographies." http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/4547/Burleigh.html (Accessed 6 July 2005).

                                      Darius Thieme