Preserving our heritage

Daily Reading for September 11 • Harry Thacker Burleigh, Composer, 1949

Soon after Antonín Dvořák came to America as director of the National Conservatory in York in 1892, he revealed his enthusiasm for the folk music of the land and called for the formation of an American school of composition. Dvořák became particularly fond of one of his black students, Harry Burleigh, and spent many hours listening to him sing the folksongs of his people and discussing with him the possibilities for utilizing the folk music as the basis for composition. Within three months of his arrival, Dvořák had begun work on a symphony, From the New World (No. 9 in E minor), that emplyed themes invented in the spirit of Negro and Indian folk melodies. Just before its New York premiere in 1893, Dvořák stated:

“I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States. . . . These are the folk-songs of America, and your composers must turn to them. . . . In the negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. They are pathetic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay, or what you will.”

Burleigh began composing about 1898, at first writing simple ballads in the style of the period, then turning to art songs and instrumental pieces. He left more than three hundred compositions, including arrangements of spirituals, art songs, and other forms. As an arranger of spirituals for the solo voice Burleigh made a unique contribution to the history of American music. Before he published his Jubilee Songs of the United States of America in 1916, spirituals were performed on the concert stage only in ensemble or choral arrangements. Burleigh’s achievement made available to concert singers for the first time Negro spirituals set in the manner of art songs. After Burleigh, many concert singers developed the tradition of closing their recitals with a group of Negro spirituals, sometimes intermixed with other arranged folksongs. Burleigh wrote about his aim: “My desire was to preserve them [the spirituals] in harmonies that belong to modern methods of tonal progression without robbing the melodies of their racial flavor.” In 1929 Burleigh published the Old Songs Hymnal, a collection of very simple arrangements of Negro songs for nonprofessionals “to be used in church and home and school, preserving to us this precious heritage.”

From The Music of Black America: A History by Eileen Southern, third edition (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997, 1983, 1971).

Past Posts