Erie Chamber Orchestra Celebrates Black History Month With a Festival Honoring Erie's Harry T. Burleigh

Posted: February 8, 2016

Even in his hometown, Harry T. Burleigh is a shadowy figure, best known as one of the namesakes of a downtown elementary school.

Yet a century ago, it was the rare American vocal recital that did not feature a composition with Burleigh's attached to it. The composer, arranger, singer and collector of American plantation spirituals is, with apologies to Pat Monahan and Peter Menin, Erie's most significant musical figure.

This week, the Erie Chamber Orchestra will celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth with two concerts devoted to his legacy. 

The first, on Monday evening, at 7:30 p.m. at the Cathedral of St. Paul, 134 W. Seventh St., is a recital of spirituals, the musical form most closely associated with him. 

On Saturday evening at 7:30 p.m. at Cathedral Prep Auditorium, the orchestra, under music director Matthew Kraemer, will present a program culminating in Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, subtitled "From the New World."

Burleigh was renowned as a singer, a career that began in Erie's churches and synagogues, and which led to a scholarship at the newly established National Conservatory of Music in New York.

But by 1916, Burleigh supplanted his performing career by publishing arrangements of the religious plantation songs he heard as a child. They were a sensation, but more importantly, they form the DNA of almost every American musical style of the 20th century.

These songs, "My Lord, What A Mornin'," "Dry Bones" and "Deep River," the spiritual with he is most closely identified, will be performed at Monday's recital by tenor Brent Weber, baritone Edward Pleasant and pianist Beth Etter. Arrangements of spirituals by the Afro-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor will be played by Trio Nova Mundi and the Cathedral Choir of St. Paul will also appear in the church where Burleigh sang and was baptized. 

Dvořák was taken with Burleigh's songs, and turned to them, notably in the slow movement of the symphony, with the melody we know today as "Goin' Home."

Burleigh's arrangement of that famous tune, sung by Edward Pleasant, will precede the symphony. The baritone will also sing Burleigh's "Saracen Songs" accompanied by Etter. 

"These songs are part of the Orientalist fascination that was popular with Burleigh and indeed the entire culture at the turn of the last century," said Burleigh scholar Jean Snyder, Ph.D. "They are among the many beautiful art songs that Burleigh wrote that almost nobody knows these days," she added.

Perhaps not, but for a week, at least, Harry Burleigh can be a prophet of American music and an object of honor in his hometown.