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Feast of Harry Thacker Burleigh

Today is the anniversary of 9/11, and if our feast day today was for anyone other than who it is, I would probably have replaced it with a commemoration of that event. But I’m not going to do that. There will be plenty of commemorations out there today, and we’ll include it in our prayers of the people shortly. But one of the best responses to 9/11, I’ve always felt, is continuing to live in this great world of ours with hope and joy, and today’s saint is someone who brings both of those to my life.

Harry Thacker Burleigh was a singer and composer. He lived fairly recently as saints in our calendar go: he died in 1949 at age 82. His grandfather was a slave in Maryland, who bought his manumission and moved to Ithaca and eventually Erie Pennsylvania.

Harry learned from his grandfather how to sing. He had a beautiful and very famous baritone voice. His grandfather also taught him a lot of spirituals and African folk songs, which would play a very important role later in Harry’s life.  His mother worked as a maid for a woman who hosted musical events in her home in Erie PA, and sometimes Harry as a boy would serve as a doorman for these. This is how, early on in his life, he encountered in person a number of famous singers who no doubt inspired him to pursue music. So, music was everywhere in his life as a young man–through his grandfather, church, and work.

In his mid-20s he moved to New York City where he had received a scholarship to attend the New York Conservatory of Music. He met there the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, who was the president of the conservatory. It was from Burleigh that Dvorak learned many of the American and African American motifs that he worked into his New World Symphony, which I spent the morning listening to. I want to play a super short clip of a section of that That’s thought to have been influenced by a melody that Burleigh shared with Dvorak. You will definitely recognize this part of the symphony. (Audio clip below)

And Burleigh’s hand is thought to be in many other parts of the symphony besides this–this is just one of the most famous ones. Some people think the melody behind it is Swing Low Sweet Chariot.

Burleigh (as I said) was a baritone and became famous not just as a prolific composer, but also as a singer and soloist. Matthew our organist told us an interesting story about Burleigh at our staff meeting last week. Matt is the director of the St. George’s Choral Society which is based out of St. George’s church in Manhattan. For 50 years Burleigh was a soloist there. One of his pieces that he sang every year on Palm Sunday became so famous that Mayor La Guardia had it recorded and broadcast; unfortunately that recording no longer exists. He didn’t like being recorded in general, but he was so famous that, had he agreed to be recorded more, I’m sure there would be a lot more familiarity with him today.

Anyway, the story Matthew told us was about Burleigh’s start at St. George’s. Apparently it was the custom to audition singers while they stood unseen behind a screen, so as to avoid favoritism. The judges (I assume parishioners) unanimously agreed that Burleigh’s voice was the best … and then he stepped out from behind the screen. A controversy ensued in the church over hiring an African American singer. The deciding vote was cast by none other than vestryman JP Morgan, who voted to hire Burleigh.

The first Sunday Burleigh was scheduled to sing, some members of the parish got up and walked out. Upon which Morgan immediately got up himself, went to the front door and took down the names of those who left. He did this so he could match their pledges dollar for dollar. And that began the singer’s fifty year career at St. George’s. Isn’t that an amazing story?