The late Harry T. Burleigh was the first African-American composer to gain wide critical acclaim in the United States.
Henry Thacker Burleigh was born and raised in the town of Erie, Pennsylvania on December 2, 1866. He was taught the art of singing by his grandfather, a former slave, along with his brother. After learning the traditional “negro spirituals” and other African-American folk songs, Burleigh’s big baritone voice matured to the point where he began receiving classical training.
At 26, Burleigh was granted a scholarship to study at the National Conservatory of New York where he caught the attention of Czech instructor and director of the Conservatory, Antonín Dvořák. Under Dvořák’s guidance, Burleigh’s songs of his youth and cultural heritage were given a tweaking that made it palatable to wider audiences.
After leaving the Conservatory, Burleigh joined the choir as a baritone soloist for the St. George’s Episcopal Church as its first and only Black member at the time. In 1911, he turned away from singing and began composing works using the Negro spirituals that gained him notice and crafting them into art songs that were popular in that time.
In all, Burleigh composed between 200 and 300 works built on that song style, which earned him the Spingarn Achievement Medal in 1917 for his contributions to modern music.
Burleigh passed at the age of 82 on September 12, 1949.
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