Author: Jean E. Snyder
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Formats: Book (hardcover and ebook editions)
Release date: March 1, 2016
Ethnomusicologist Jean Snyder’s new biography of Harry T. Burleigh, most famous for art-song arrangements of spirituals and for influencing Antonin Dvorak, will stand as the definitive biography of Burleigh for the foreseeable future. Snyder consulted primary sources provided to her by the Burleigh family and several archives, as well as materials provided to her by Anne Key Simpson, author of Hard Trials: The Life and Music of Harry T. Burleigh (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1990). Snyder’s previous work on Burleigh includes her dissertation, “Harry T. Burleigh and the Creative Expression of Bi-Musicality: A Study of an African-American Composer and the American Art Song” (Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh, 1992), and two recordings of his music.
The book is worth reading for anyone interested in the cultural life of African American communities in the “Promised Land” after the Civil War. Burleigh (b. 1866) benefited from a family dedicated to arts and education as well as a family tradition of civil rights activism. Burleigh’s visually-impaired grandfather had purchased his freedom and then moved to Erie, where he assisted with the Underground Railroad. Burleigh’s mother attended an all-black school funded by a white abolitionist, learning Greek and Latin. She went on to teach at an all-black school, but when she applied for work at the local white school, she could work only as a “janitress.” Burleigh learned spirituals from his grandfather and attended the local black church, but he also sang at the local white Episcopal church and later with other white singers in the region. He and his mother received their education from schools set up by sympathetic white philanthropists, but they could only attend prestigious “musicales” (house concerts) by serving as maid and doorman. This conflicting racial atmosphere would both nurture and frustrate Burleigh. By the age of 22, he emerged from his formative years in Erie as an accomplished musician with a deep regard for both European and African American culture and the knowledge of how to navigate the artistic circles of both races.
Part II consists of chapters 4-13, and takes up where most casual biographies begin: Burleigh’s enrollment in the National Conservatory of New York City, where he would meet Antonin Dvorak. By then he had enjoyed something of a career as a vocal soloist, performing often in Cleveland, Erie, and beyond. He was admitted to the top vocal course of study, supported by a tuition scholarship as well as funding from patrons in Erie. He also held professional singing positions at Temple Emmanu-el, the most prestigious synagogue of New York, and St. George’s Episcopal Church. Dvorak arrived at the conservatory in Burleigh’s second year, and Burleigh became the librarian and copyist for the student orchestra that Dvorak conducted. The two became very close, and of course Burleigh famously sang spirituals for him.
Dvorak’s belief in the importance of untutored, or “folk” music dovetailed with the duality of Burleigh’s cultural background, but he was one of many influences on him. Burleigh also became friends with Will Marion Cook and Frederick Douglass, and he worked with them on “Colored-American Day” at the World’s Columbian Exposition (a.k.a. Chicago World’s Fair, 1893) in which they countered the “Dahomey” display of ragtime and the still-current stereotypes of traveling minstrel shows. The attendees included Paul Laurence Dunbar, who would become a close friend, and journalists from many black newspapers, who spread news of his accomplishments.
Burleigh remained in New York, his career as a classically-trained singer largely limited to church music. He sang at the most prestigious (and elitist) black Episcopal church, yet his circle of friends included theater performers. He also associated with black society of Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. The latter connection came via his wife, who grew up in D.C. The Burleigh family became almost as active in D.C. cultural activities as they were in New York.
Throughout the remainder of the book, we see that Dvorak was only one of Burleigh’s many famous associates: he was friend and defender of Booker T. Washington; he sang the first African-American performance of his friend Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast; he served on the board of the Music School Settlement founded by David Mannes; and he worked with Alain Locke (among others) to promote African-American artistic endeavors.
Burleigh sang standard European repertoire, American art songs, and “plantation songs,” as if to say “these are all equally worthy of being heard and respected.” He mentored and collaborated with the greatest African American musicians of his era, promoting spirituals in this way as well as in his own performances. The book also details numerous mentoring relationships with emerging artists, such as the young Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson, who frequently performed his arrangements of spirituals.
Modern readers may be surprised to learn that some African Americans of the era lived rather privileged lives. Burleigh’s accomplishments bought him entreé into this elite class. Readers will learn about trips to the beach and the generosity of the elite in supporting struggling artists and activists. “Lifting up the race” was no mere metaphor for them—they provided mentoring and funding to many who are now famous in their own right.
The final chapters of the book focuses on Burleigh’s wife, Louise Alston. Her personal ambitions and feelings of abandonment due to her husband’s active career epitomize the frustrations of many wives, black and white. After some success writing poetry in dialect, she pivoted to a career portraying Native American heritage.
This book reveals Burleigh to have been much more than an arranger of spirituals and a church musician. He was a force for African-American art and culture, compelling respect in listeners and raising standards among his students. Snyder does an excellent job of portraying both the racial atmosphere of the era and Burleigh’s use of his time and talent to promote the music and the people who had been denigrated for too long. In hindsight, his compositions seem to marginalize him in the wider context of classical music history, but Snyder emphasizes that his historical footprint is much bigger than his compositional output.
There are 50 pages of copious endnotes which may inspire readers to pick up a thread and follow another figure from black music history through the same archives that Snyder consulted. The only drawback is that many chapters are topical, rather than chronological, so there are many digressions. A timeline of Burleigh’s life would have made some chapters easier to navigate. Otherwise, the book is a worthy addition to any library, personal or institutional, that collects information about black music and important figures in African American history.
Reviewed by Amy Edmonds