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From Bethesda chorus to international renown

From Bethesda chorus to international renown

Harry T. Burleigh, one of America’s most important composers and arrangers of African-American sp...
From Bethesda chorus to international renown
Harry T. Burleigh, left, and Stephen Salters

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Harry T. Burleigh, one of America’s most important composers and arrangers of African-American spirituals, launched his music career in the 1890s when he sang in a church in Saratoga Springs.

“He had a very prominent career as a composer and as a singer in New York City and elsewhere,” says Gordon Boyd, a spokesman for Bethesda Episcopal Church.

Harry T. Burleigh 150th Commemoration

WHEN: Today and Saturday in Saratoga Springs

EVENTS: Concert at 8 p.m. today by opera baritone Stephen Salters singing Burleigh, Ladd Concert Hall, Zankel Music Center, Skidmore College; “Blues and African-American Musical Heritage” exhibit, through Saturday in the Zankel lobby; “Blacks in Saratoga Springs: Then and Now,” a bring-your-lunch lecture by Bard College’s Myra Young Armstead, 12:15 p.m. today in Zankel 117; pre-concert talk by Jean Snyder, author of “Harry T. Burleigh: From the Spiritual to the Harlem Renaissance,” 7 p.m. today in the Zankel’s Ladd Concert Hall; Advent Lessons and Carols with Salters singing Burleigh, 3 p.m. Saturday at Bethesda Episcopal Church, 41 Washington St., Saratoga Springs

HOW MUCH: Zankel concert is $8 adults, $5 seniors, free for students and children; other events are free

MORE INFO: www.skidmore.edu/zankel; Zankel box office 580-5321, bethesdachurch.org

When he was in his early twenties, before he became internationally known, Burleigh sang in the chorus at Bethesda while he was employed as a wine steward at the Grand Union Hotel, which was next door to the church.

“We only really re-discovered the Burleigh relationship a couple of years ago as we were writing the parish history. It’s now going to be part of the history of Bethesda and the history of Saratoga Springs,” Boyd says.

Today and Saturday, Skidmore College and Bethesda Episcopal will celebrate the 150th anniversary of Burleigh’s birth on Dec. 2, 1866 with performances by internationally renowned opera baritone Stephen Salters.

At 8 p.m. today, Salters will perform at Skidmore’s Zankel Music Hall with pianist Linda Osborn. The Skidmore Vocal Chamber Ensemble will also make a special appearance.

Salters, who sings “like God on a good day . . . intensely imaginative and adventurous,” according to a Washington Post review, will perform a wide selection of Burleigh’s works.

Before the concert, at 7 p.m., Jean Snyder, author of “Harry T. Burleigh: From the Spiritual to the Harlem Renaissance,” will give a talk.

At 3 p.m. Saturday, Salters will sing during an Advent Service of Lessons & Carols at Bethesda Episcopal Church.

An article about Burleigh by Field Horne, a Saratoga Springs historian and author, also appears in the current issue of Saratoga Living magazine.

Burleigh audio

Listen to a rare 1919 recording of Harry T. Burleigh singing “Go Down Moses” on YouTube. Click here

The Burleigh connection was unearthed in a book in the Saratoga Springs Public Library.

“The city historian had written it up in the late 1950s,” says Boyd. “It was laid aside and forgotten.”

Hotel workers

In the 1890s, many young African-American men worked in the Grand Union, which was once the world’s largest hotel and occupied an entire city block before it was razed in 1953.

“He and the others caught the attention of the rector of Bethesda,” says Boyd.

The rector, Father Carey, invited the young men to present choral programs at the church on Sunday afternoons.

African-Americans have always been members of Bethesda’s congregation, especially in the 1930s and 1940s, but in those days, Carey “was definitely pushing the envelope,” says Boyd.

“Father Carey just decided that whatever rule there was he wasn’t going to abide by it.”

The Sunday programs “were getting a lot of attention from the seasonal visitors in town, including a Mrs. MacDowell, whose son became a very prominent composer,” says Boyd. “Mrs. McDowell liked the way Burleigh sang and she helped him get into the National Conservatory in New York City, which eventually became Juilliard.”

When Burleigh was at the Conservatory, Czech composer Antonin Dvorak was the artist-in-residence.

“Burleigh helped him orchestrate ‘New World Symphony’ and may have had something to do with getting the Negro spiritual melodies into that work that Dvorak composed,” says Boyd.

“His main legacy musically is taking the slave songs, the folk songs from the field and elevating them up to art songs. So his compositions are very sophisticated. They were designed for people he mentored, like Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson.”

NAACP honor

Burleigh was very involved in the African-American Renaissance in New York City.

For some 50 years, he was a soloist at St. George’s Church, and for 25 years, he sang at the Temple Emanu-El synagogue, both in New York City. Burleigh’s music became essential repertoire for recitalists in the early 20th century, and his performances and arrangements of African-American spirituals helped preserve and popularize them in his time and beyond.

In 1916, Burleigh was recognized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) with its third annual Spingarn Medal for highest achievement by an American citizen of African descent.

When he died in 1949 at age 82, the composers Eubie Blake and William C. Handy were pallbearers at his funeral.

Boyd, who is a member of Bethesda’s Schola Cantorum choir, says the choir has been studying Burleigh’s music in preparation for Saturday’s service and Salters’ featured performance.

“This is going to be an interesting experience for the choir because we haven’t done any Burleigh repertoire at Bethesda, except for the one hymn ... “In Christ, There Is No East or West,” which is a standard in the Episcopal hymnal.

Bethesda’s Music Director and Organist Farrell Goehring, and Choral Director Kathleen Slezak will lead.

Salters has won acclaim throughout Europe, Great Britain, Asia and the United States for his contemporary and standard repertoire. He works regularly with leading conductors including Seiji Ozawa, Keith Lockhart, Leonard Slatkin and Bobby McFerrin. His wide ranging opera experience includes leading roles in works by Mozart, Donizetti, Gluck, Handel, Benjamin Britten and Kurt Weill.

Reach Gazette reporter Karen Bjornland at 395-3197, [email protected] or on Twitter @bjorngazette.

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