Harry T. Burleigh Society

Advancing Burleigh Studies through scholarship and performance

A Brief Overview

On the 150th anniversary of Burleigh’s birth, Society co-founders Lynne Foote and Dr. Marti Newland organized to develop a resource for scholars and artists pursuing work about baritone and composer Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949).

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Born in Erie, Pennsylvania and a descendent of slaves, Burleigh’s activity as a student at The National Conservatory (1892-1896) led him on a path that still resounds. After his composition studies with then-conservatory director Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904), Burleigh arranged and published the first solo voice-piano arrangement of a concert spiritual, “Deep River” (1917, G. Ricordi). This cemented the concertization of spirituals as art songs and put Burleigh in motion to lead other composers, singers, worshipers, and listeners to participate in concert spiritual engagement.

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Distinct from the concert spiritual choral tradition led by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in the 1870s, the solo concert spiritual called for a professionalization of spiritual singing and arranging. Burleigh also composed songs with texts by a diverse set of poets, and wrote instrumental music including a piano suite. Participating in the Western art song tradition as both a composer and singer, the publishing industry as an editor for G. Ricordi, and a charter member of ASCAP, Burleigh forged a career as a baritone soloist at St. George’s Episcopal Church and Temple Emanu-El, where he was in the racial minority as an African American. Burleigh was also a voice pedagogue, teaching acclaimed singers such as Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson. He was active in the intellectual life of his era, corresponding with friends and colleagues including James Weldon Johnson, Will Marion Cook, W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, and S. Coleridge Taylor. His legacy exemplifies the profound possibilities and lessons of the lives of African American art musicians—which the Society explores and expands. The Society follows Burleigh in providing forum for anti-racist American history and culture.

Paul Robeson

Marian Anderson