In honor of African-American History Month, PatchChords examines the life of Henry Thacker "Harry" Burleigh (1866-1949).
Henry Thacker "Harry" Burleigh (1866-1949)
Born in Erie, Pennsylvania in 1866, Burleigh received early instruction in singing from his grandfather, who taught him and his brother traditional spirituals and slave songs. Further studies in vocal music followed, and, during and after his high school years, young Burleigh became known, with his striking baritone voice, as one of Erie's most accomplished classical singers.
Subsequently, at the age of 26, he was accepted, with a scholarship, to the prestigious National Conservatory of Music in New York, eventually playing double bass in the Conservatory's orchestra. While there, he came to the attention of one of the Conservatory's professors, the noted Czech composer, Antonín Dvořák, and Burleigh became a huge influence on Dvořák's interest in, and advocacy of, African-American melodies, which reached its apotheosis in Dvořák's employment of the pentatonic scale in several of his compositions.
In 1894, Burleigh became a soloist for St. George's Episcopal church in New York City, despite racially-motived opposition to his hiring. And, in 1946, he retired from the position after 52 years of service. Around the start of his time at St. George's, he began to publish his own arrangements of art songs and, indeed, to compose his own songs, gaining a reputation as one of America's best-known composers of art songs, composing, in his lifetime, somewhere between 200 and 300 songs.
At the age of 82, in 1949, he passed away back in Erie, Pennsylvania, leaving behind a rich legacy which lies in his prolific original compositional output, in his role in teaching and establishing many African-American soloists (such as Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson) on America's recital stages, in his promotion and advocacy of the spiritual as a musical form, and in his introduction of African-American music to classically trained artists.