Henry Thacker Burleigh

Henry Thacker Burleigh


• 1866 1949


Henry Thacker Burleigh was the first African-American composer to be taken seriously, and a major figure in the history of African-American music.

His father died at an early age. His mother was a maid at the home of a wealthy family in Erie named Russell. Mrs. Russell often gave musical evenings, and would hire the boy to serve as a doorman, in part to allow him to listen to the music. This had the intended effect: it awakened his interest in music, at which he showed great aptitude. His rich baritone voice was quickly in demand as a singer at churches (white and black), and even at synagogues in the Erie area. His talent and the way he had applied himself to learning the elements of music led the people of the area to get together a fund to enable him to go to New York to study.

He went in 1892 to the newly-established National Conservatory of Music, whose director was the eminent Czech composer Antonín Dvorák. He progressed rapidly there, became a musical assistant to Dvorák, and was appointed as a teacher of voice there. Burleigh was clearly the inspiration for Dvorák's well-known call for the musicians of America, if they were to develop an authentic American music, to look to the music of the peoples of the land, be they European immigrants, descendants of African, or indigenous people.

In 1894 Burleigh was given the position of soloist at New York's upper-crust St. George's Episcopal Church, withstanding opposition motivated by racial considerations. He remained with that church until he retired 52 years later. In 1900 he was appointed soloist at Temple Emanu-El in New York.

For nearly two decades Burleigh traveled widely as a soloist in America and Europe, and gave a command performance for King Edward VII of England. Before the turn of the century he established himself as a composer of popular songs for home music making and of serious concert songs.

He began to withdraw from concert life in 1911, when he got a position on the editorial staff of the New York offices of the Ricordi publishing firm.

His concert tours, when taken through America, had necessarily required that he stay in the "colored" community, where he had heard numerous folk songs and spirituals. He noted down many of them, and then, starting in 1916, began publishing his harmonizations of them, beginning with Jubilee Songs of the USA, which includes the famous "Deep River." He inspired others to write down songs as well, thus preserving a vital oral musical tradition. However, since he harmonized songs according to European rules of musical theory, this preservation is in a form that is considerably altered from the way they originally were sung. On the other hand, in the process he created a new hybrid musical form of great vitality, so that his arrangements are successfully sung from the black churches to classical concert stages everywhere in the world.

He wrote over 200 works, including folk and spiritual publications, but also choral works, solo songs, and violin and piano music and his own themes. Nonetheless, it is his position as the transmitter of the great legacy of the spiritual that makes him one of the greatest contributors to the shaping of American music.