Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Harry T. Burleigh, "One of Erie's Most Popular Church Singers"

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Harry T. Burleigh, "One of Erie's Most Popular Church Singers"

Article excerpt

Harry T. Burleigh has been recognized primarily as the singer who introduced Antonin Dvorak to plantation songs and spirituals and as a pioneer arranger of African-American spirituals. In the past several decades, more and more singers have discovered the art songs that in the first quarter of the twentieth century earned Burleigh distinction as one of the most respected composers of American art songs. But other important aspects of his career are less well known, such as his more than thirty years as an editor at the New York office of Ricordi Music Publishing Company, headquartered in Milan, Italy. His role as vocal coach and mentor to a number of singers--including Roland Hayes, Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Carol Brice, Abbey Mitchell, Revella Hughes, and Ella Belle Davis--has been overshadowed by the greater fame of those he assisted. Even less understood is Burleigh's success as a recital performer, which drew these younger singers to seek his help in developing their own singing careers. His fifty-two-year tenure as baritone soloist at the wealthy St. George's Episcopal Church in Stuyvesant Square in New York City merely hints at the importance of Burleigh's role as a link between nineteenth- and early twentieth-century African-American concert singers such as sopranos Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, Madame Marie Selika, and Madame Sissieretta Jones; tenors Wallace King, Harry A. Williams, and Sydney Woodward; and baritones John Luca and Theodore Drury and the younger singers who followed him and have become established in our collective memory as "the first" generation of African-American concert singers: Roland Hayes, Marian Anderson, and Paul Robeson.

The Burleigh family papers hold programs and clippings of reviews of Burleigh performances that document a significant recital career along the eastern seaboard, particularly through New England, with a few appearances as far west as Minneapolis and Chicago and as far south as Nashville and Atlanta. In fact, Burleigh saw himself primarily as a singer, particularly in the first twenty years of his career in New York City. It was to become a serious classical singer that he left Erie, Pennsylvania, in January 1892 to audition at the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, where Antonin Dvorak would be director the following September. In an interview with A. Walter Kramer (1916) at the height of his fame as an art song composer, Burleigh declared, "I never even dreamed of being a composer--at least not out loud. I was going to be a singer and I am." As Kramer's article emphasized, despite Burleigh's modest protests, he was indeed a genuine composer as well as a singer. Burleigh's skill as a song composer was rooted in his thorough knowledge of German lieder and American song repertoire, along with Italian and French opera arias, and the vocal facility of his songwriting grew from a public singing career that began in his teenage years in Erie.

Burleigh described his January 1892 audition at the National Conservatory of Music in a 1924 interview with Lester A. Walton (1974, 83): "The late [Rafael] Joseffy, Romualso Sapio and Adele Margulies were among the artists of renown on the jury. I think I was given an ABA for reading and B for voice. I was told that AA was the required mark, below which I had fallen a little." When the conservatory registrar, Frances MacDowell (mother of composer Edward MacDowell), informed Burleigh that he had failed the audition, he told her of his ambition to be a professional singer and showed her a letter of recommendation from Mrs. Elizabeth Russell. "I told her my cherished longings, and she sympathized with me" (Walton 1974, 83).

Burleigh had first seen Frances MacDowell in Erie at a musicale played by Venezuelan pianist Teresa Carreno at the Robert W. Russell home, at which Burleigh's mother had assisted as a maid and Burleigh as the doorman. Carreno had been Edward MacDowell's teacher, and she introduced MacDowell's piano compositions to audiences in the United States and Europe. …

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