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Henry Thacker Burleigh Biography

Selected works


Composer and singer

A leading classical vocalist and composer, Henry Burleigh was influential in the process of establishing an "American School" in classical music. In particular he composed and arranged religious music in the African American tradition of spirituals and was a friend of Antonin Dvor̂ák, who consulted Burleigh about American folk and religious music while composing his ninth symphony From the New World. Though much of Burleigh's output is highly sentimental, it was performed by some of the major singing stars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; he produced over 100 arrangements of popular songs such as "Deep River" (1916) and "Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho" (1935). Burleigh was also a fine baritone singer in his own right, toured extensively, and performed for many heads of state; Paul Robeson listed him as one of his singing mentors. Through his performances, original compositions, and through his arrangements of spirituals, Burleigh helped establish American folk music in the concert hall and became the first black American composer to gain international prominence.

Henry Thacker Burleigh was born in Erie, Pennsylvania, on December 2, 1866, the second son of Henry Thacker Burleigh and Elizabeth (Waters) Burleigh. His father was a laborer while his mother worked as a domestic servant despite being a teaching college graduate. Burleigh acquired his knowledge of Negro spiritiuals from his maternal grandfather, who had been born a slave but was freed after being beaten and partially blinded in punishment. From an early age Burleigh, who was known throughout his life as "Harry," worked as an errand boy and messenger, often accompanying his grandfather on his rounds as a lamplighter. In her biography of the composer Anne Key Simpson explains that his love for music became apparent at an early age: he was hired as a doorman by his mother's employer, Elizabeth Russell, after standing knee-deep in snow for hours so that he could hear Rafael Joseffy perform at the Russell home.

Burleigh graduated from Erie High School in 1887 and worked as a laborer and later a stenographer, supple-menting his income with local singing performances. It was not until 1894, at the age of 26, that he went to New York City and entered the National Conservatory of Music on a scholarship after his second attempt to pass the audition. It was at the conservatory that he met Antonin Dvor̂ák, the Czech composer who became the school's director in 1892. Burleigh spent a great deal of time with Dvor̂ák, learning composition, copying manuscripts, and singing spirituals for him. Dvor̂ák's major work in the period was his Symphony No. 9 From the New World, which premiered in December 1893 and includes musical references to several American folk tunes, though the extent of Burleigh's influence on Dvor̂ák's work is uncertain.

In 1894 Burleigh began to make his way as a professional musician when he was auditioned for a position as baritone soloist at St. George's Episcopal Church in New York City. His skin color made him a controversial choice, but Burleigh beat 59 white candidates and began a relationship with the church that lasted 52 years. He was also the first black soloist at the Temple Emanu-El, where he served between 1900 and 1946. Burleigh married poet Louise Alston on February 9, 1898, at about the same time as he began to compose. Their only child, a son named Alston, was born in 1899.

In all Burleigh made almost 190 choral arrangements and composed over 260 works for solo voice. His "art songs," arrangements of spirituals, and other compositions, were performed by some of the best-known musicians of the time, including, including John McCormack, Lucrezia Bori, and Ernestine Schumann-Heink. In a review of the collection From the Soutland, Keith Ward wrote that while many of Burleigh's songs have become dated, some are "… quite ambitious. A good example is the ballad, 'Ethiopia Saluting the Colors' (1915), one of four songs found on both compact discs…. Burleigh's suggestive harmonies, his use of borrowed material, and his highly personal rendering of the text [by Walt Whitman] make this a song that deserves a place in today's concert repertoire."

Burleigh's success as a performer also extended to touring. He performed across the United States and in Europe, appearing in command performances for the British royal family and for President Theodore Roosevelt as well as a special broadcast performance for New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. Ill health forced his retirement from performing in 1946. Two years earlier he had performed in the fiftieth annual performance of Fauré's The Palms, a tradition he established at St. George's church in his first year as soloist there. Burleigh's influence on American music also found lasting expression in his work as an editor for the Ricordi Record Company, a position he held from 1911 until his death, and in his generosity to other black musicians and artists. In particular Burleigh was a mentor to Paul Robeson, Roland Hayes, and Marion Anderson, but he was also acquainted with other black musicians and academics, including composer Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the historian W.E.B. DuBois. Burleigh was a charter member of American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers in 1914 and became a member of its board of directors in 1941. He died from a heart attack in Stamford, Connecticut, on September 12, 1949, and is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery, Hastings, NY.

Selected works

Published Music

Jubilee Songs of the United States, 1916.
Old Songs Hymnal, 1929.

Albums of Compositions

The Young Warrior, Troy, 1993.
Art Songs of Harry T. Burleigh, Centaur, 1996.
Deep River: Songs and Spirituals, Troy, 1999.
From the Southland: Songs, Piano Sketches and Spirituals of Harry T. Burleigh, Premier Recordings, 1999.

At a Glance …

Born Henry Thacker Burleigh on December 2, 1866, in Erie, Pennsylvania; died on September 12, 1949, in Stamford, Connecticut; married Louise Alston on February 9, 1898; children: Alston Waters (son). Education: National Conservatory of Music, New York City, 1892–95. Religion: Episcopalian.

Career: Baritone soloist, St. George's Episcopal Church, New York City, 1894–1946; Soloist at Temple Emanu-El, 1900–46; editor at Ricordi Record Company, 1911–49; also composer and arranger, 1898–1949.

Memberships: Charter member of American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), board member from 1941.

Awards: NAACP Spingarn Medal, 1917; Harmon Foundation Award, 1929; honorary degrees from Atlanta University and Howard University.



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


American Music, Summer 1999, p. 230.

American Visions, October-November 1995, p. 47.

Journal of Negro History, January 1950.

New York Times, September 13, 1949.

School Library Journal, December 2003, p. 71.


"Henry Burleigh," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (December 23, 2005).

"Henry Thacker Burleigh, a Dedicated Gospel Performer," African American Registry, www.aaregistry.com/african_american_history/2150/Henry_Burleigh_a_dedicated_gospel_performer (December 23, 2005).

"Henry Thacker Burleigh," Africlassical.com, http://chevalierdesaintgeorges.homestead.com/Burleigh.html (December 23, 2005).

"H. T. Burleigh," Afrocentric Voices in Classical Music, www.afrovoices.com/burleigh.html (December 23, 2005).


The Burleigh Collection of magazine and newspaper articles is located in the Schomburg Collection of the New York City Public Library.

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