Friday, September 11, 2009

Harry Thacker Burleigh

Earlier this summer, the General Conference of the Episcopal Church added several persons to be commemorated on the church calendar, including some additional musicians and hymnwriters, which puts them on our calendar here.

Composer Henry "Harry" Thacker Burleigh is marked today, one day before the anniversary of his death (though some sources erroneously show his death as December 12). Burleigh was born and raised in Erie, Pennsylvania, where he sang in a quartet with his brother and two sisters as a young teen, then in high school he joined the newly established Choir of Men and Boys at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Paul in Erie. Over the next few years, Burleigh performed as a baritone soloist in several area churches and synagogues, as well as for community organizations.

In 1892 he moved to New York City, having won a scholarship to the National Conservatory of Music, and his first chance to receive formal musical training. He became friendly with the school's director, the composer Antonin Dvorak, and became Dvorak's assistant in 1893, copying out the instrumental parts from the manuscript of the New World Symphony. Some sources credit Burleigh's friendship with Dvorak with the elder composer's use of themes in that symphony which evoke African-American spirituals, though Dvorak apparently never confirmed that assumption.

In 1894, Harry Burleigh became the baritone soloist at St. George's Episcopal Church in New York over the objections of many in the congregation who were not comfortable with an African-American song leader. However, he was to remain in that post for the next fifty-two years, reportedly missing only one Sunday. In 1900 he also became the first black soloist at the NYC synagogue Temple Emanu-El. During these years he also began to compose, but his compositions took second place to his concert career for the next several years.

In 1911 he began working as an editor in the New York office of G. Ricordi and Company, an Italian music publisher. He took more of an interest in composing after this, and also in exploring the tradition of the spiritual. He compiled, arranged, and published Jubilee Songs of the United States (1916) and Old Songs Hymnal (1929) which collected more than a hundred spirituals that had not been published before. His arrangements of spirituals, both for soloists and for chorus are still sung today, such as this one.

Burleigh also composed instrumental music, and was renowned for his art songs. He was a charter member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and later served on its board of directors.

In the Episcopal Hymnal 1940, his hymn tune McKEE was first published with the John Oxenham text In Christ there is no east or west. McKEE was based on the spiritual I know the angel's done changed my name, and named for the Reverend Elmore McKee, the then-current rector of St. George's. You may have sung it; it was published in several hymnals after that.

Harry Burleigh retired as St. George's baritone soloist in 1946 at the age of eighty, two years before his death. A posthumous tribute in the church's newsletter declared He seemed aware of deeper tones of brotherhood and throbbing harmonies of humanity which others did not hear.


AuntE said...

Thank you so much for teaching me about this man. What an amazing career/ministry he had!

C.W.S. said...

I thought that my readers who are also music directors would appreciate a choir singer who missed only one Sunday in 52 years!

But, more seriously, Burleigh did a lot for our understanding of American musical history, as well as breaking down racial barriers in church music.

AuntE said...

Also, the fact that his arrangements (or transcriptions?) of some spirituals are well known and still sung today speaks for the quality of his work.