The National Endowment for the Arts’ American Masterpieces: Choral Music initiative is designed to celebrate our national musical heritage by highlighting significant American choral composers and their works of the past 250 years. Stanton’s Sheet Music is proud to present this series highlighting the composers and their works featured in this groundbreaking project.
In 1892, the great Bohemian composer Antonín Dvořák accepted an invitation to take directorship of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. Before long he was spending many an evening listening with increasing fascination to the songs and spirituals of African-Americans as sung to him in the rich baritone of one of his students, Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949). Dvořák would use some of these melodies the next year in his most famous symphony, No. 9, From the New World. Decades later Burleigh’s still expressive voice had a similar effect on Darius Milhaud, who incorporated influences of African-American music in his ballet La Création du Monde.
Burleigh was born just after the Civil War in Erie, Pennsylvania. As a child he heard his partially blind grandfather, a former slave, sing the old spirituals and plantation songs, and he developed a lifelong passion for music. As a youth he sang in his own Presbyterian church choir and at a Jewish temple. A scholarship enabled him to attend the National Conservatory where he studied voice, harmony, and counterpoint.
In 1894 he became the first African-American soloist hired by St. George’s Episcopal Church in New York City. Befriended by the entrepreneur and philanthropist J. Pierpont Morgan, Burleigh stayed at St. George’s for 52 years, enabling him to spend the rest of his time following his muse. In addition to composing and performing, he helped foster the careers of other singers, most notably Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson. He was recognized with the NAACP Spingarn Medal and was a founding member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.
Burleigh is remembered today principally for his innumerable arrangements of spirituals, more than a hundred of them, many of which have become regarded as the standard versions.