By the height of the Harlem Renaissance in the early 20th century, the tradition of arranging African-American spirituals for concert performance had strongly emerged.
That tradition continued through the Harlem Renaissance and beyond, in no small part because of the work of African-American composer, arranger and singer Harry T. Burleigh.
The first published collection of spirituals came out in the early 1860s.
Concert arrangements of spirituals quickly proliferated – thanks in part to groups of jubilee singers, like the famous Fisk University Jubilee Singers, ensembles dedicated to singing spirituals in public concerts.
During the 1890s, Burleigh studied at New York City’s National Conservatory of Music.
While there, Burleigh sang to the conservatory’s director, Antonin Dvorak, the melodies of some spirituals that he had learned from his grandfather, a former slave who had purchased his freedom.
Burleigh had become one of America’s great composers of art song by the time his first collection of choral arrangements of spirituals was published in 1913. Burleigh brought his skill as a song composer to bear in his first collection of spirituals arranged for solo voice and piano, published in 1916.
Burleigh produced most of his choral and solo-voice arrangements of spirituals between 1900 and 1920. Also during this time, choirs and solo artists gave the first performances of Burleigh’s concert spirituals.
The renowned bass Paul Robeson, tenor Roland Hayes, contralto Marian Anderson and even Burleigh himself were just a few of the artists who performed Burleigh’s spirituals arrangements in concert.
Starting in 1924 – and for more than 20 of his 52 years as a member of the choir of St. George’s Episcopal Church in New York City – Burleigh brought his spirituals arrangements before the public in an annual Vespers Service of Negro Spirituals.
According to a 1924 opinion piece published in Opportunity, one of the leading publications of Harlem Renaissance thinkers and artists, the first of these Vespers Services of Negro Spirituals drew a large and diverse crowd to St. George’s.
“For three hours last Sunday,” the author wrote, “thousands of [Burleigh’s] admirers clamored to enter that church already full to bursting in order to pay tribute to the man who is today the greatest American composer of songs. It was a fine sight. There was no element of American culture unrepresented.”
Beyond Burleigh’s death in 1949, many composers and arrangers – perhaps most notably the prominent African-American composer and arranger Moses Hogan, and countless choirs and solo artists – have carried the concert spiritual tradition into the 21st century.