Born in Erie, Pennsylvania in 1866, Harry T. Burleigh grew up cloaked in the melodies of African-American spirituals. He heard them from his grandfather, a former slave who went on to become a town crier. He heard them from his mother, who worked as a domestic servant. He heard them from his community of elders, who gathered in prayer and song every week.
So, when the young man earned a scholarship to attend the National Conservatory of Music in New York, he took those songs with him. Burleigh would then spend the bulk of his career carving out space for Black music in white institutions, imbuing classical arrangements with the heritage-rich songs he learned in his youth. By the time he died, in 1949, he had spent 50 years as a soloist at the city’s St. George’s Episcopal Church and created more than 200 works that helped define spirituals as integral to the American art song, ushering Black music into elite stages.
Burleigh’s legacy, as overlooked as it is profound, is the focus of a May 8 celebration at the Langston Hughes Auditorium at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The second such collaboration between the Harry T. Burleigh Society and the Urban Playground Chamber Orchestra, the event intends to revisit some of Burleigh’s most important works while also exploring the lingering influence his efforts have had on contemporary composers.
“Burleigh wrote music that was both immediately recognizable to the ear as having African-American music idiom influence — and music that was not,” explained Marti Slaten, the executive director of the Harry T. Burleigh Society. She said his success in skirting that delicate line between two seemingly disparate genres created space not only for him, but also for future generations of Black artists and creatives.
To honor those contributions, violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins, mezzo-soprano Lucia Bradford and baritone Lawrence Craig are slated to perform at the event following a lecture by music historian A. Kori Hill. The arrangements of Burleigh’s teacher, Antonin Dvorak, are included in the program, along with pieces from renowned Black composers who followed in Burleigh’s footsteps.
“Burleigh wrote art songs so that the following generation — William Grant Still, William Dawson and Florence Price — could write symphonies and concert works,” said Thomas Cunningham, the artistic director of Urban Playground.
Still’s oratorio “And They Lynched Him on a Tree,” first performed by the New York Philharmonic in 1940, is slated to make a rare return during the celebration. The powerful performance, which featured a double chorus of Black mourners juxtaposed by a white mob, debuted at the New York Philharmonic in 1940 for an audience that included First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.
The piece had a scant performance history following its debut, languishing for decades without a revival. By bringing it to the fore on May 8, organizers have sought to recognize creators who unflinchingly detailed Black experiences despite the risk of offending a powerful white establishment.
Slaten said it’s especially important to remember the bravery of these types of works, especially when reports of hate crimes and hate groups in the U.S. are rising.
“We’re at another historical height in the brutality of Black bodies in public spaces, especially in the United States, especially around police brutality,” she noted. “We’re hoping the concert will give us a chance to hear, reflect and learn lessons from the mid-20th century as we’re moving into the mid-21st.”
For more information on the event, visit the Harry T. Burleigh Society website.
Top Image: NYPL Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; Beyond My Ken