One of the most highly regarded musicians in the United States in the 19th century made his home here in Genesee County. Joseph Burke was an accomplished violinist, actor, pianist and singer among other talents. He played and sang on world tours with famous acts and shows.
Burke’s most famous co-star was the famous Swedish singer Jenny Lind, known as the “Swedish Nigtingale.” He even had famous students when he transitioned to the role of teacher later in life. With all of his success and fame, Burke chose to vacation in Alexander on his farm, “Summerville.”
Joseph Burke was born near Galway, Ireland and was discovered as a child prodigy very early on. He began performing at the age of 3 as an actor and violinist. At 5 years old, he was starring as Hamlet and other Shakespeare roles at the Dublin Theater Royal.
He made his American debut at 11 on Nov. 22, 1830, in New York.
Joseph’s travels soon brought him to Western New York. He was so enthralled with the area that he decided to make it his home away from home. In 1846, he bought a farm on Creek Road in Alexander, naming it “Summerville.”
In 1850, Burke received a telegram from P.T. Barnum, inviting him to join a concert tour with two well-known Italian artists as the supporting cast for the world-famous soprano, Jenny Lind. He would tour with Lind through 1851 and invited her to stay with him at Summerville between concerts.
The room where she slept was kept for many years after as the Jenny Lind room. The group was later joined by a pianist named Otto Goldschmidt, who would marry Jenny within a few months.
Jenny’s marriage to Otto left a lasting impact on Joseph. It was believed by many of his family and friends that Joseph was in love with Jenny.
They would continue to exchange letters until her death in 1887. Joseph later spoke of a visit to the Goldschmidt’s in England, when he told Jenny, “If I had thought you would marry a mere musician, I would have proposed to you.” Jenny answered, “Oh, why didn’t you?”
Joseph would never marry, believed by many because of his love for Jenny, and seldom played the violin that she gave him, as it brought back to many sad memories. However, Burke did keep an autographed picture of her and her family close at all times. He would never lose his love of the piano and continued to play and improvise new pieces.
As time wore on, Burke transformed into a less active life and stepped farther away from the stage, though he never left it entirely. His efforts shifted to the support of the arts.
He was a leader in establishing the New York Philharmonic and served as its president three times. Burke also became a distinguished teacher of pianists and composers, even teaching Winston Churchill’s mother. Upon retiring, he would spend his summers in Alexander and the rest of the year in New York or Washington.
While at Summerville, he would take long walks, even walking the five miles to Batavia and back.
Burke was well-known in the community, and many whom he passed on his walks lovingly referred to him as “Uncle Joe.” He died in 1902, 15 years after Jenny, and he was buried with another gift from her, a gold signet ring.
Duffy is director of the Holland Land Office Museum.