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Harry T. Burleigh

Male | Composers


b. 1866-1949

Arguably, the first prominent Black composer in America is Harry T. Burleigh. He has a distinguished catalog of songs which were quite popular with singers in the earlier part of this century (especially Christine Miller, George Hamlin, John McCormack, and Roland Hayes). In the offing are exquisite individual songs like ³Little Mother of Mine,² ³Jean,² and ³The Grey Wolf.² His songwriting is balanced and tasteful, and his songs are models of sincerity and sensitivity to text. Burleigh\\'s important song cycles include Saracen Songs and Five Songs of Laurence Hope, both of which are now available in print through Classic Vocal Reprints/E. C. Schirmer. Of particular importance are his settings of J. Rosamond Johnson¹s poetry in the cycle Passionale. This work is the only song cycle with which this author is acquainted that is dedicated exclusively to the poetry of this important African-American figure.

Passionale, for high voice and piano, consists of four songs. The cycle was published by G. Ricordi in 1917. The score can be borrowed from the New York City Public Library. The poetry is written from a masculine perspective, in adoration of feminine attributes, but the songs could conceivably be performed by a soprano or lyric mezzo-soprano. They are characterized by lyrical melodies in the voice undergirded by mostly homophonic piano accompaniment. The tessitura of the songs is middle to high. The difficulty level for both singer and pianist is medium. The dynamic range required varies with each song. Some soft singing in a high tessitura is requested. It is harmonically lush, with chromaticism layered on a firmly diatonic structure. This is a fine period cycle.


The Glory of the Day was in Her Face

Her Eyes, Twin Pool

Your Lips Are Wine

Her Eyes, So Deep

Harry T. Burleigh belongs to a group of Black composers in the nationalistic school of composition. Also included were such men as Will Marion Cook, J. Rosamund Johnson, and Nathaniel Dett, who were born before 1900, used Black folk music as a source of inspiration, and composed in concert, show, and entertainment music. Most of these composers were well trained and capable of writing in the European style.

For lack of money, Burleigh's formal music study did not begin until he was twenty-six. He went to New York, obtained a scholarship to the National Conservatory of Music, and began his study with Antonin Dvorak. his coposing began about 1899, which included ballads, art songs, instrumental pieces, and arrangements of spirituals for solo voice and piano. Theretofore, spiritual singing had been solely a choral art. Inclusion of the spiritual for singing on the concert stage was a revolutionary concept when Burleigh first arranged "Deep River." Since his pioneering efforts and owing a great debt of gratitude to Burleigh, Black concert singers have routinely programmed spirituals.

Burleigh's output included about 300 works, among them being Saracen Songs, Five Songs of Laurence Hope, Passionale, "Jean," "Little Mother of Mine," "The Grey Wolf," and his popular spiritual arrangements for solo voice. Burleigh was also a baritone soloist of great renown.

Source: Perkins Holly, Ellistine. Biographies of Black Composers and Songwriters; A Supplementary Textbook. Iowa:Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1990.

Harry T. Burleigh: From the Spiritual to the Harlem Renaissance, Jean Snyder. University of Illinois Press

Recordings of Burleigh's Songs

Bibliography of Harry T. Burleigh


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