Museum Helps Celebrate Legacy of Harry T. Burleigh

Harry T. Burleigh

By Tribune Staff

NASHVILLE, TN — The National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM) is joining forces with Tennessee State University to honor one of the pioneers in spiritual and classical music. They have been named a sponsor of the fourth annual Harry T. Burleigh Spiritual Festival, hosted at Tennessee State University this weekend.  The museum will sponsor several events including a panel discussion on Friday, and the closing scholarship concert Saturday night. The scholarship concert is free and open to the public.

With a theme taken from the title of a Burleigh arrangement in the slave dialect, this year’s spiritual festival will explore and dissect the Negro Spiritual’s influence on modern composition and music making, non-African American composers, social justice movements, and hip-hop.

“Even though we are scheduled to open next year, NMAAM has made and will continue to make the effort to educate and engage our local community with education programs like this,” said H. Beecher Hicks III, CEO and president of NMAAM. “So much of the music you hear today has roots going back to Negro spirituals. Along with the Spiritual Festival, the museum wants to be one of the ways that music fans of all ages learn about the connection between the past, the present and the future of the American Soundtrack.”

Harry T. Burleigh was the first Black composer to popularize and expose Black spiritual music. He was also a superb baritone vocalist. Burleigh arranged traditional spirituals into classical form, making them available to artists who weren’t familiar with nor used to performing them. 

He also had an astonishing career as a performer. Burleigh sang spirituals for Anton Dvorak, and composed and arranged innovative reworkings of numerous spirituals. He began his career singing in his family’s quartet, and subsequently appeared in many top churches, including being the first Black vocalist and soloist at St.George’s Episcopal church in New York City. He also was the first Black vocalist to sing at New York’s Temple Emanu-El, and with Walter F. Craig and his orchestra.

Near the end of the 19th century Burleigh began to publish his arrangements of art songs, and compose his own material. He became one of the nation’s premier art song composers by the early 20th century. His arrangements for voice and piano were later performed by such great Black classical vocalists as Roland Hayes, Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson. He was honored with the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal in 1917. Burleigh also coached many top Black classical and operatic performers. Estimates of how many songs he wrote number between 200 and 300, though he fiercely resisted recording during his lifetime.

Burleigh was a founding member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and was given a seat on its broad of directors in 1941. For more information about the festival contact the National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM) at 615-301-8724 or www.nmaam.org

All events will be at the Tennessee State University Performing Arts Center.

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