H. T. Burleigh (1866-1949)
by Randye Jones
Henry (Harry) Thacker Burleigh was born on December 2, 1866, in Erie, Pennsylvania. His mother, Elizabeth, was a domestic worker because she was unable to get a teaching position despite her college education and fluency in French and Greek.
The people who musically influenced Burleigh's life can
be traced as far back as his maternal grandfather. Hamilton Waters was a partially blind ex-slave who worked as Erie's town crier and lamplighter. As he performed his duties, he sang plantation songs to young Harry, thus passing on a music--the Negro spiritual--that his grandson would one day make known around the world.
Young Burleigh also heard several prominent performers who gave recitals at
the home of his mother's employer, Mrs. Elizabeth Russell. On one
. . . heard that Rafael Joseffy was coming to give a concert there.
He would hear it at any cost; so he stood in the snow up to his knees
outside the window of the drawing-room of the Russell house. . . The lad
was taken ill, pneumonia threatened, and in answer to his mother's
inquiries, he told of the hours in the deep snow. 1
Burleigh's mother, who he credited as his strongest supporter,
recognized his strong desire to hear music. She gained permission from Mrs. Russell to have Harry answer the door when guests arrived for concerts.
Into young adulthood, Burleigh took several jobs as a
laborer to help support his family. Music, however, was his steady
companion. He sang while at work, and he took advantage of any
opportunity to hear musicians who came to town. He sang at school and in the choirs at St. Paul's and Park Presbyterian churches and the Reform Jewish Temple.
After graduating from high school in 1887, Burleigh continued to improve his skills as a musician while he was employed as a stenographer for two area businesses.
In 1892, at the age of 26, Burleigh heard that the National
Conservatory of Music was holding auditions for a scholarship. Burleigh
journeyed to New York, departing Erie with only $30, which he had acquired through gifts and loans, and a letter of recommendation from Mrs. Russell.
The adjudicators at his audition concluded that he fell just below the standards required to receive the scholarship. However, Frances MacDowell, the school's registrar and an acquaintance of Mrs. Russell's, intervened, and Burleigh eventually received a scholarship.
The subjects that Burleigh studied at the conservatory included voice with Christian Fritsch, harmony with Rubin Goldmark, and counterpoint with John White and Max Spicker. He also played in the orchestra and was its librarian. Because his scholarship only covered his tuition, he also had to work just to survive. In a description of his circumstances at the time, Burleigh stated that,
I used to stand hungry in front of one of Dennett's downtown restaurants and watch the man in the window cook cakes. Then I would take a toothpick from my pocket, use it as if I had eaten, draw on my imagination and walk down the street singing to myself. That happened more than once or twice." 2
Among the contacts that Burleigh made during his years at the
conservatory were composer Edward MacDowell, son of Burleigh's benefactor, and composer/conductor Victor Herbert. However, it was his association with Czech composer Antonin Dvořák that most strongly influenced Burleigh's career as a composer.
Dvořák came to the United States in 1892 as the new director of the conservatory. He learned of the spiritual through his contacts with Burleigh and later commented that:
. . . inspiration for truly national music might be derived from the
Negro melodies or Indian chants. I was led to take this view partly by
the fact that the so-called plantation songs are indeed the most striking and appealing melodies that have yet been found on this side of the water, but largely by the observation that this seems to be recognized, though often unconsciously, by most Americans. . . . The most potent as well as most beautiful among them, according to my estimation, are certain of the so-called plantation melodies and slave songs, all of which are distinguished by unusual and subtle harmonies, the like of which I have found in no other songs but those of old Scotland and Ireland.3
During Dvořák's term as director, he encouraged other students to adopt his philosophy and used the melodies he heard Burleigh sing in his compositions. His major work of this period was his Symphony no. 9, "From the New World", which was given its premiere in December 1893. He used portions of one of the spirituals, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," as a theme within the symphony's first movement.
Burleigh spent many evenings singing the spirituals of his youth for Dvořák. He also did manuscript copying for the composer. In January 1894, Burleigh, along with soprano Sissieretta Jones, were the featured soloists in
Dvořák's arrangement of "Old Folks at Home," presented in New York's Madison Square Garden.
An event also occurred in 1894 that had a major impact on Burleigh's life. He auditioned for the baritone soloist position at St.
George's Episcopal Church of New York. Although there was much debate about hiring a Negro to sing in the affluent parish, he was selected for the post over numerous other applicants. The beginning of this 52-year relationship marked the first time that Burleigh's income allowed him to concentrate on his studies. He made several influential contacts, including entrepreneur J. Pierpont Morgan, who arranged additional engagements for Burleigh.
The next six years were very busy for Burleigh, both professionally
and personally. In addition to his work as a singer, he completed his
studies at the conservatory in 1896 and taught sight-singing there from 1895 until 1898. He married poet Louise Alston in 1898; their son, Alston, was born the following year. This was also the year that three of Burleigh's early songs, on texts by his wife, were first published by G. Schirmer. In 1900, he became an editor for G. Ricordi, and he was selected as the first African-American to serve as soloist for Temple Emanu-El, an affluent New York synagogue.
Burleigh continued and expanded his contacts with the Black musical and academic community. He had two brief brushes with vaudeville. He was a guest lecturer and performer at Black colleges and universities. He became acquainted with celebrated personalities such as composers Will Marion Cook, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and Robert Nathaniel Dett, and academicians Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois.