Spirituals and Harry Burleigh


Harry Burleigh One of the earliest arrangers of African American religious music and prolific composer of "Art" songs was Harry T. Burleigh. Burleigh was born in Erie, Pennsylvania in 1866, he attended the National Conservatory of Music in New York City from 1892-1896, and was on the faculty there for several years. He also received honorary degrees from Atlanta and Howard Universities. He was protege of Anton Dvorak, who it is said spent many hours listening to Burleigh sing folk songs of his people and discussing with him the possibilities of using this music as inspiration for a major composition. Soon after, Dvorak used some of these songs as the basis for his symphony, "From the New World (No.9 in E minor) which premiered in New York in 1893. Burleigh was a baritone soloist for St. George's Episcopal Church in New York City from 1894 - 1946, where he gave an annual concert of spirituals. In 1900, he was appointed soloist for Temple Emanu-El and remained there for twenty five years. He was a charter member of ASCAP and arranged many spirituals including Deep River, other songs composed by him include Jean and Just You. In 1917, he published a major series of music called, Negro Spirituals, where he describes the origins of this music.


Burleigh wrote:
The plantation songs known as "spirituals" are the spontaneous outbursts of intense religious fervor, and had their origin chiefly in camp meetings, revivals and other religious exercises.


They were never "composed," but sprang into life, ready made, from the white heat of religious fervor during some protracted meeting in camp or church, as the simple, ecstatic utterance of wholly untutored minds, and are practically the only music in America which meets the scientific definition of Folk Songs.


Success in singing these Folk Songs is primarily dependent upon deep spiritual feeling. The voice is not nearly so important as the spirit; and then rhythm, for the Negro's soul is linked with rhythm, and is an essential characteristic of most all Folk Songs.


It is a serious misconception of their meaning and value to treat them as "minstrel" songs, or to try to make them funny by a too literal attempt to imitate the manner of the Negro in singing them, by swaying the body, clapping the hands, or striving to make the peculiar inflections of voice that are natural with the colored people. Their worth is weakened unless they are done impressively, for through all these songs there breathes a hope, a faith in the ultimate justice and brotherhood of man. The cadences of sorrow invariably turn to joy, and the message is ever manifest that eventually deliverance from all that hinders and oppresses the soul will come and man - every man - will be free.


Burleigh died in Stamford, Connecticut on September 12, 1949. His life work is still celebrated in many African American churches across the country.


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