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
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
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
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
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