Harry Thacker Burleigh, better known as H.T. Burleigh, was the first and most influential Black composer to rise to large success post- Civil War. He was widely known for his perservation and arrangemtn of traditional Black spirituals and plantation songs. Without his work, most likely most of the songs that come to mind when we think of “spirituals” would be lost in the past. A singer and composer as well as an arranger, Burleigh composed more than 300 works.1 His work was hugely influential and brought Black music to the Western classical music stage for the first time.
Born on December 2, 1866 in Erie, Pennsylvania, Burleigh showed an early passion and talent for music. He grew up learning these spirituals and folk songs from his maternal grandmother and singing in the church choir. However, he was unable to afford formal musical training until 1892, when he attended the National Conservatory of Music in New York City.2 During his time there, he studied under and work closely with composer Antonín Dvořák, who was director of the conservatory.3 This relationship was very influential in fostering Burleigh’s love of spirituals and folk songs. Burleigh was dedicated to preserving the traditional flavor and sprit of these songs, and Dvořák was supportive of this. Dvořák was so inspired by this musical tradition that he wrote themes inspired by many of Burleigh’s melodies, for example in his “From the New World” Symphony no. 9 in E minor.4 Burleigh was an incredibly accomplished musician despite being discriminate against every step of the way. A popular baritone singer, he sang as the soloist at St. George’s Church for 50 years and was the soloist at Temple Emanuel for 25 years.5 He even sang at a command performance for King Edward VI of England and received an honorary Doctorate of Music from Harvard and Masters of Music from Atlanta University. He was the first Black American to serve on the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers board of directors, and received the Spingarn Acheivement Medal in 1917 from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.6 I mention all these accomplishments because I believe it is important to spotlight Black Americans such as H.T. Burleigh who paved the way for so many others. His work brought Black music into the spotlight and made accessible to the average concert-goer for the first time. His arrangements of spirituals for solo voice were incredibly influential in American music – Burleigh, for the first time, brought Black music to the western classical music stage. He presented these spirituals as fine art songs, and Black music was more accessible to the concert world than ever before. While they strayed from their original performance style greatly, Burleigh was still dedicated to preserving the traditional roots and “flavor” of these songs in composed form.
Above is an example of Burleigh’s arrangement of one of the most famous spirituals arranged for solo voice, “Wade in de Water”. It’s important to note that Burleigh kept the original dialect in his arrangements, rather than completely Westernizing the songs for the classical stage. Burleigh was adamant about preserving the sacred nature of this musical tradition. As he states in the introduction of his 1917 “Negro Spriritauls Arranged for Solo Voice”,
“Their worth is weakened unless they are done impressively, for through all these songs there breathes a hope, a faith in the ultimate justice and brotherhood of man. The cadences of sorrow invariably turn ot joy, and the message is ever manifest that eventually deliverance from all that hinders and oppresses the soul will come, and man – every man – will be free.” – H.T. Burleigh
1 Erickson, Shannon. “Harry Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949) •.” •, 19 May 2021, www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/burleigh-harry-thacker-1866-1949/.
2 Bauer, Pat. “Harry Thacker Burleigh.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 8 Sept. 2023, www.britannica.com/biography/Harry-Thacker-Burleigh.
3 Erickson, Shannon. “Harry Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949) •.” •, 19 May 2021, www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/burleigh-harry-thacker-1866-1949/.
4 “H. T. Burleigh (1866-1949).” The Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200035730#:~:text=Harry%20Thacker%20Burleigh%20played%20a,adaptations%20of%20African%2DAmerican%20spirituals. Accessed 11 Oct. 2023.
5 Bauer, Pat. “Harry Thacker Burleigh.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 8 Sept. 2023, www.britannica.com/biography/Harry-Thacker-Burleigh.
6 Erickson, Shannon. “Harry Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949) •.” •, 19 May 2021, www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/burleigh-harry-thacker-1866-1949/.