Harry T. Burleigh: accomplished composer, talented baritone… and Dvořák’s muse?

One of the most beloved African-American composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was Harry T. Burleigh. Born and raised in Erie, Pennsylvania, he learned to sing spirituals from his mother and sang in various church and community events throughout his childhood. In his teenage years, he became known as a fantastic classical singer, and got to work at and see many famous people perform, such as Venezuelan pianist Teresa Carreño. Then, a few years after high school in 1892, Burleigh began to attend the National Conservatory of Music in New York on scholarship for voice (1).

But, by the title of this blog post, how does any of this relate to Czech person and well-known composer Antonín Dvořák?

Well, Dvořák happened to immigrate the United States in 1892 also to become the director of the National Conservatory of Music! He both taught classes and conducted the conservatory orchestra, which Burleigh also happened to become the librarian and copyist for. As a result of this, Dvořák and Burleigh worked together frequently, which eventually turned into a friendship. A particularly cute story from their friendship comes from a letter Dvořák wrote to his family back home that his son “[would sit] on Burleigh’s lap during the orchestra’s rehearsals and [play] the tympani” (2).

However, the relationship between the two bettered their compositions as well. Dvořák would often overhear Burleigh singing spirituals to himself while working or in the halls, and, not knowing much about spirituals, would talk to him about them and learn many of the songs from him. Dvořák then encouraged Burleigh to begin composing and arranging these spirituals (1). This would kickstart a prolific composing career for Burleigh, who incorporated spirituals into many of his original art songs, arrangements, and other compositions, and amassed a portfolio of over 200 works. Here is a review of his works from the Afro-American Cullings section of the Cleveland Gazette (3):

Dvořák also found ample inspiration in the African-American folk music he learned from Burleigh and gained a huge amount of respect for it. In fact, he was so displeased that white Americans did not care for African-American music that wrote several news articles in the New York Herald, in which he argued that the soul of American music lies in Black music, which the Herald’s white readers found difficult to swallow, to say the least. Here are a few words from an article he wrote in 1893, with even a picture of Burleigh (4):

Dvořák then composed his New World Symphony (here’s a link to its very famous Largo movement) based off several spirituals, the pentatonic and blues scale – all learned from Burleigh – and Indigenous music, and it gained massive acclaim and spreading rapidly throughout the country (3). Black communities across the country absolutely adored the work, and grew to become very fond of and proud of both Dvořák and Burleigh, as can be seen in this from the Cleveland Gazette (5):Thankfully, and radically for the time, Dvořák gave much credit to Burleigh for the conception of many of the ideas for his New World Symphony (2).

Sources:

(1) “H. T. Burleigh (1866-1949)”. 2022. The Library Of Congress. https://loc.gov/item/ihas.200035730.

(2) “African American Influences”. 2022. DAHA. https://www.dvoraknyc.org/african-american-influences.

(3) “Afro-American Cullings.” Cleveland Gazette, October 30, 1915: 4. Readex: African American Newspapers. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A12B716FE88B82998%40EANAAA-12BC1B62334A2850%402420801-12BA063BD57BDCD8%403-12DBB540D0E6C840%40Afro-American%2BCullings.

(4) Dvořák, Antonin. 1893. “Antonin Dvořák On Negro Melodies”. New York Herald, May 28th, 1893. https://static.qobuz.com/info/IMG/pdf/NYHerald-1893-May-28-Recentre.pdf.

(5) “[America; Dr. Antonin Dvorak; Mr. Harry T. Burleigh; Erie; Samuel P. Warren].” Cleveland Gazette, September 23, 1893: 2. Readex: African American Newspapers. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A12B716FE88B82998%40EANAAA-12C2B9DB2DFFBDD8%402412730-12C106453A9F6688%401-12D7B8B19C518AD0%40%255BAmerica%253B%2BDr.%2BAntonin%2BDvorak%253B%2BMr.%2BHarry%2BT.%2BBurleigh%253B%2BErie%253B%2BSamuel%2BP.%2BWarren%255D.

Sylvan Worship

First of all, I would like to say that this is an incredible database! I had no idea that there was a collection of these African American newspapers that spans more than a century. 

It took me a few tries to find a nice buzz word to put into the database search. I found that the word “spiritual” got me results that most relate to this course. This text “Sylvan Worship” was a bit difficult for me to read at first. This newspaper doesn’t make clear who Curtis, the narrator of the text, was. This made it hard for me to fully comprehend what they were saying without the slightest bit of background. Because all of the texts from this database are from African American newspapers (or other types of text), I first assumed that the narrator was black. However, the more I read, the more I felt that this person was from the African American community. This is not based on his knowledge or opinions on the topic of African American spirituals, but the language he used to speak on the topic was from an outsider point of view. In this sentence, “No race is more devotional than the African and to no class of people does the camp meeting revival prove so effectual as with them.” it sounds like Curtis is making statements based on his own observations of Africans and African Americans as an outsider.

Whether or not Curtis is African American, his points are huge generalizations and he doesn’t really use specific examples to illustrate these points. This definitely would not slide in a modern-day discussion (especially in our class). 

After reading the text over one more time, I have a strong feeling that Curtis is not black.

“‘Sylvan Worship.’.” Weekly Louisianian (New Orleans, Louisiana), September 18, 1875: 1. Readex: African American Newspapers. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A12B767D21CB17968%40EANAAA-12BEC31400554038%402406150-12BC002A0EA02018%400-12D621523A4D1068%40%2522Sylvan%2BWorship.%2522.

The History and Reception of “Roll Jordan, Roll”

After a discussion on the origins of black spirituals I was left questioning the origins of specific spirituals like “Roll Jordan, Roll”. I found, although not very surprising, that “Roll Jordan, Roll” was created by an european man by the name of Charles Wesley in the eighteenth century. He was a methodist preacher and after reading the articles by Jackson and Krehbiel, which have the goal of tackling this question of origin, I was not at all surprised that the origins of the song came from a white, protestant background. What I am left wondering is how “Roll Jordan, Roll” made it’s way to the slave south of the mid to late nineteenth century.
What I have found through my search in pursuit of answering my wonder is that the song may have been used as an effort to christianize the slaves. What I mean is the song wasn’t the sole proprietor in christianizing but was apart of a curriculum in doing so. It seems that the song had gone through an evolution and rather than being a christianizing song to the slaves, it was turned into a song of sorrow or conduit for abolitionism.
The religious allegories of the song had become a story of escaping slavery. There are many adaptations of the song, but the idea of the song being one of being delivered from slavery remains. The photo below is a documentation of one adaptation of the song. It was recorded into the Slave Songs of the United States (1867). 

Slave Songs of the United States by William Francis Allen

“Roll Jordan, Roll” was eventually widely accepted as a former slave song rather than methodist spiritual. Below is a excerpt from a newspaper article from 1880. Whomever wrote it acknowledges that the songs sung by the Jubilee Singers, included “Roll Jordan, Roll” originated from “slavery times”, not the old English Methodists.
I suppose for me “Roll Jordan, Roll” can not be owned by any race. It is a black spiritual as well as a Methodist hymn.
Works Cited and Consulted:
“The National Capital. Wether–Society–The Jubilee Singers.” Weekly Louisianian (New Orleans), March 20, 1880. Accessed March 20, 2018. African American Newspapers.
“Roll Jordan Roll: A Community in Song and Sound.” The Black Atlantic. March 18, 2014. Accessed March 20, 2018. https://sites.duke.edu/blackatlantic/2014/03/18/roll-jordan-roll-a-community-in-song-and-sound/.
“The River Jordan in Early African American Spirituals by Daniel L. Smith-Christopher.” River Jordan in Early African American Spirituals. Accessed March 20, 2018. http://www.bibleodyssey.org/places/related-articles/river-jordan-in-early-african-american-spirituals.
“Slave Songs of the United South.” William Francis Allen, 1830-1889, Charles Pickard Ware, 1840-1921, and Lucy McKim Garrison, 1842-1877. Slave Songs of the United States. Accessed March 20, 2018. http://docsouth.unc.edu/church/allen/allen.html#slsong1.

Harry Burleigh–A Nice Post for Once

We have been tackling some difficult ethical issues in this class regarding how we should feel and respond to the shameful reality of minstrelsy and its related veins. One conclusion we have come to is to acknowledge the past, recognize (white) America’s shortcomings, and point ourselves and others in the direction of something better. In my research for this post, I feel I have found that something better.

Sheet music for “Steal Away” arr. by H.T. Burleigh.
Complete sheet music here.

I came across the spiritual, “Steal Away,”1 the name of which I recognized as a song Viking Chorus sang during my freshman year. I found that the spiritual was arranged by Harry T. Burleigh, and reading about him was a little shining star in this (at times) depressing class. A rendition of the spiritual can be found on Youtube, among several others.

Harry Thacker Burleigh (b. 1866) is recognized as the first and among the most influential African American composers in post-Civil War America. He studied at the New York National Conservatory of Music where he became friends with Antonín Dvorák, who was the school’s director. They spent ample time together, Burleigh sharing with Dvorák the black spirituals and plantation songs that he had heard from his grandfather. Dvorák encouraged Burleigh to save these songs, to arrange them as his work.2 Thankfully, he did. “Steal Away” is one of the hundreds of pieces he arranged and composed. His most successful song is likely his arrangement of “Deep River” (1917), a song many people today recognize.3

Photograph of Harry T. Burleigh by Carl Van Vechten

In the booklet of “Negro Spirituals” from which I found “Steal Away,” one of the first pages is a single page note from Burleigh on spirituals. Similar to the descriptions of spirituals Eileen Southern provides in Antebellum Rural Life,4 Burleigh outlines them as “spontaneous outbursts of intense religious fervor, and had their origin chiefly in camp meetings, revivals and other religious exercises”. He goes on to condemn the portrayals of blacks and their music in minstrel shows, declaring that the attempted humorous mimicry of “the manner of the Negro in singing them” is a “serious misconception of their meaning and value”.5

It is my belief that, with the knowledge of the shortcomings of American culture in our hearts, we should look to and celebrate those who do not fall into the questionable traditions we have encountered. I think Harry T. Burleigh is a splendid example. Thus, I would like to end this post with the ending words of Burleigh’s note in the booklet. He speaks of that value mentioned above, the true value of spirituals.

Their worth is weakened unless they are done impressively, for through all these songs breathes a hope, a faith in the ultimate justice and brotherhood of man. The cadences of sorrow invariably turn to joy, 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.B.