Harry T. Burleigh & Dvorak

Harry T. Burleigh: Encounter, Appropriation, Nationalism, and the man who taught Dvorak the Spirituals.

Around here, we think a lot about Dvorak’s time in Iowa, and his visit to the Czech Hall on West 7th Street.  But, his time in New York was also crucial to the perspective he gained “From the New World”, as it were.

In New York, Dvorak ran into a wonderful musician named Harry T. Burleigh, who became both student and mentor to Dvorak.  Burleigh was a baritone and double-bass player, and ultimately a great composer, arranger, and editor.  He was a young Black man from Erie, Pennsylvania, attending the National Conservatory in New York (now Juilliard), when Dvorak met him.

Not only did Burleigh sing many of the traditional Black Spirituals for Dvorak; he became a good friend to the older composer, and helped him to absorb a great deal about American music and culture.  He studied composition with Dvorak, eventually composing orchestra music, and arrangements of a great many Spirituals which are still standards of art song today.  Dvorak recognized his intellect, broad interests, and attention to detail, and recommended him to his publisher, Ricordi of Milan, as an editor.  When I first learned this, I got out my Billé double bass etudes (learned by every serious bassist of the last 100 years), because I knew it was published by Ricordi.  Sure enough, there was “H.T. Burleigh, Editor”, in the book I had owned for 40 years.

Dvorak famously said that American composers should focus on using Black music, Native American music, and other folk music to build a truly American Classical music.  Was he also a cultural appropriator?  I don’t feel qualified to make that judgement.  I know that he was a Nationalist composer of the original type: he was a member of an ethnic group that had long been dominated by an empire, and was struggling to define their national identity through art. That sort of Nationalist musician ran from 1848, right up through Sibelius and Paderewski.  His advice to Americans would have come from that self-understanding. 

On the other hand, Wagner and others had already started spreading a toxic Nationalism by that time.  And Debussy, at the 1889 exposition in Paris, had encountered Javanese Gamelan music through a consciously Orientalist, exoticist lens, as a representative of a colonizing culture.  His use of Southeast Asian techniques was clearly appropriation.

I can’t think about that era of European classical music without also thinking about these broad cultural themes.  But, I also really admire Mr. Burleigh and what he achieved.  His arrangements are exquisite.  There was a time when most vocal recitals in the U.S. would end with one or two Spiritual arrangements, often by Burleigh.  As a final note, he had regular weekly singing gigs at the most prominent Episcopal Church in lower Manhattan, and its most prominent Synagogue, concurrently, for decades. 

– Jim Waldo