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Obscure Music Monday: Burleigh's Deep River

Henry Thacker "Harry" Burleigh (Dec. 2, 1866 - Sept. 12, 1949) was an African-American composer, arranger, and baritone born in Erie, Pennsylvania. Burleigh is well known for introducing spirituals and folk songs to classically trained singers, in more classically arranged versions for them. He grew up hearing spirituals and slave songs from his grandfather, who suffered the deep injustice of slavery himself (he was eventually granted freedom, by buying his, and his mother's way out of slavery). 

Burleigh was taught spirituals and slave songs from his grandfather, and would go on to become am accomplished singer in the Erie area, singing at churches and synagogues. At the age of 26, he was accepted in to the National Conservatory of Music in New York, and eventually played the double bass in the conservatory orchestra. While in school, he did some janitorial services at the conservatory, and liked to sing while working. In doing so, he caught the attention of none other than Antonin Dvořák, who asked him to sing for him often. Dvořák would go on to incorporate these melodies in his compositions. Burleigh graduated in 1896, and later on became faculty at the conservatory.

In regards to his compositional output, Burleigh wrote between 200 and 300 songs. He liked to arrange spirituals for voice and piano, and arrange them so they could be more accessible to classically trained singers. Deep River is one of those works, arranged around 1916. The work is parts hope and mourning, as you'd expect a spiritual. The piano part is simple yet effective, and the work is touching and profound. It's unsurprising that when Burleigh published his arrangement, it was found on numerous vocal recitals of the time.

Here's a recording of this wonderful work for you to enjoy!

Oral Moses

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