By Sabina Mollot
Henry “Harry” Thacker Burleigh was a baritone singer, composer and arranger who worked for over half a century at St. George’s Parish in Stuyvesant Square as a soloist. He also sang for 25 years at another Manhattan religious institution, Temple Emanu-El, and at both institutions, he was the first black singer to be hired.
Burleigh (December 2, 1866-September 12, 1949, pronounced “burly”) received his earliest musical training from his mother, according to a Library of Congress profile, while a Wikipedia bio also notes he learned about spirituals and slave songs from his grandfather, Hamilton Waters, who’d bought his way out of slavery in 1835. Burleigh’s father, Henry Thacker Burleigh, Sr., a naval veteran in the Civil War, was the first black juror in Erie County in 1871.
As for the younger Burleigh, called Harry, even without formal training, he was able to find employment as a soloist in several churches and synagogues in his native Erie, Pennsylvania. When he came to New York, he sang with Free African Church of St. Philip’s on West 25th Street, the first black congregation of Protestant Episcopalians in the city, according to the Dvořák American Heritage Association. Burleigh then became situated in part of a large black community there that established itself around St. Philip’s.
At the age of 26, Burleigh was accepted, with a scholarship, to the National Conservatory of Music in New York City at the age of 26. The conservatory was then run out of two homes where the Washington Irving High School campus currently exists today.
It was there where he met composer Antonín Dvořák, who served as the conservatory’s director from 1892-1895. Burleigh became his assistant and the two men also became friends.
Burleigh also ended up influencing Dvořák’s compositions, after Burleigh took him to Harlem church to hear spirituals. This later served as inspiration for two of Dvořák’s own works, according to Manhattan historian Alfred Pommer, including Symphony No. 9 in E Minor (“From the New World.”) Dvořák, in turn, encouraged Burleigh to incorporate the spirituals and plantation songs he learned as a child into his own music. His best known work, “Deep River” (1917) is one example and was one of several compositions of his to be published. As his spiritual arrangements became increasingly popular with concert soloists, a tradition of concluding concerts with a set of spirituals was established.
It was in 1894 when Burleigh joined St. George’s as a soloist after auditioning. However, the appointment didn’t come without pushback because of his race. The entire choir quit on the Sunday before Burleigh was first supposed to sing and held a protest with some of the parishioners.
“He desegregated the church and the choir, so that was a radical movement at the time and that’s what caused such an uproar,” said Marti Newland, executive director and co-founder of the Harry T. Burleigh Society, a nonprofit created last year to spread awareness about Burleigh.
But, Newland noted, the parishioners didn’t get the final say in the hiring decision. What helped Burleigh was the support of a parishioner and member of the vestry, J.P. Morgan.
It was the powerhouse banker who made financial contributions to make up for those who left the church after Burleigh was hired.
“J.P. Morgan was a huge donor there,” said Pommer, who discusses Burleigh during historic tours he gives throughout the Stuyvesant Square district.
Pommer also suggested it’s relevant that the church at this time was coming out of a period of divisiveness that was wealth and class-oriented. When rector William S. Rainsford was appointed in 1883, “The church became so much more democratic in so many different ways,” said Pommer.
Meanwhile, it wasn’t long before the flock warmed up to the singer on their own, due to Burleigh’s talent and tireless work ethic. He is said to have only missed one church appearance during his 52 years of employment.
Burleigh also started a tradition of spirituals service each May at St. George’s that were enormously popular with worshippers, said Kamel Boutrous, the musical director at St. George’s and its sister parish Calvary in Gramercy.
“St. George’s would be packed,” said Boutros. “People would line up outside. It was a major, major event.”
According to Burleigh’s Wikipedia profile, his singing of “The Palms” by Faure was a Palm Sunday tradition for 50 years, and in 1944, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia broadcasted a concert held in his office on the radio. In other concert highlights, Burleigh also performed for King Edward VII in London in 1908.
His profile also mentions that while Burleigh hated recording, he did it for a small label run by his friend George Broome in 1919 and again in 1944 for St. George’s, though the latter recordings have never been found.
After leaving Calvary, Burleigh sang with Temple Emanu-El and Burleigh was also musical editor at Casa Recording, a classical music publishing company, for 30 years.
What he is best known for, however was “professionalizing the genre” of spirituals, Newland said, by having his works published for voice and piano. This made the music more accessible to classically trained musicians. Still, despite his various accomplishments in music and publishing, “Burleigh really thought of himself as a singer, a baritone, not a composer and an arranger,” said Newland. “His editing was second to that.”
Burleigh died at age 82, though his music has lived on at St. George’s, which continues to hold a yearly musical tribute event.