As we pause today to reflect on the legacy and ever-timely challenge presented by the life and words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I am reminded of his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and his holy impatience with the slowness of progress towards racial equity in the United States. I wonder what letters he would be writing to us today. And I am struck by how relevant Florence Price’s undated song, “Sympathy,” feels in that context, and still to us today perhaps a century after she wrote it.
Price’s setting of this poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) is a masterful one, showcasing her technical abilities as a composer and her unique musical voice while expressing the emotional weight of his words in an honest, unforced, and powerful way.
The three sections of the song echo the three stanzas of the poem, beginning with lyrical lines that reflect the “sun … bright on the upland slopes” and the “wind stir[ring] soft through the springing grass” before chromatic descending lines that underscore the bittersweet images of the world beyond the cage. More intense dynamics, rhythms, and pianism mark the second stanza, as Price knows “why the caged bird beats its wing / Till its blood is red on the cruel bars.” The music crescendos before a resigned return to the first theme at the start of the third stanza, again acknowledging “why the caged bird sings, ah me, / When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore.” Finally, at the end, the piece reaches its climax as it lays out the meaning behind the bird’s - and Price’s - song:
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
It was an honor and privilege to lend my voice to Price’s music and Dunbar’s words in this 2018 concert with pianist Mark Bilyeu. May we hear their plea ring in our ears, and may we work towards a world where this plea is less timely.
Friends, it is now September. Somehow, despite the bizarre timewarp of our current coronavirus existence, we have traveled through the heart of the summer months and landed in the start of autumn. And back to school.
As a child, I loved this time of year. The excitement of new school supplies, curiosity about what I’d learn, and return to the classroom was thrilling for me. (Knowing my nerdiness as an adult, it should come as no surprise that I was just as nerdy - if not more so - as a kid.) I was deeply serious about digging into questions, imaginative play with classmates, and anything having to do with animals.
So many of these childhood memories and emotions come vividly to life in Lita Grier’s Five Songs for Children, which Bridget and I performed with pianist/curator Dana Brown in our Wine, Women & Song parlor concert series two seasons ago. We are especially fortunate to call Grier a friend of the quartet, and had the privilege of coaching the songs with her in advance of the performance recorded here. Her insight was invaluable!
Each short song in the cycle is a distilled encapsulation of the poem it features, uniquely matching the words and content of each distinct poet; yet the set feels a complete, cohesive whole. There is a clarity and directness to their presentation of a child’s perspective, while avoiding oversimplification or childishness. The voices of these children (through the poets and music) are taken very seriously, as indeed they’d take themselves.
Speaking of voices, Bridget and I worked closely with Lita to find tone colors for the performance of these songs that would best suit this intention. While still singing with our whole voices, Lita pushed us to seek a leaner side of our sounds, capturing a child’s perspective without caricature. It was also a fun challenge for us to find new ways to match one another’s tones - sharing a song cycle originally intended for a single singer - while honoring our individual voices, and making specific choices for the sound world of each song. From pure enthusiasm in Afternoon on a Hill, to imagination in The Seashell, the mystery and surprise of Someone, serious wonderment of Who Has Seen the Wind? and finally joyful celebration of song in The Bluebird, each song brings a different mood of childhood to light.
Do any of these speak to you? Which song captures a bit of your childhood memory best? We’d love to hear!
Hello, and welcome to the blog! We are Fourth Coast Ensemble, Chicago's classical vocal quartet. Join a different member of our ensemble each week for insights into our favorite art songs, links to archival and new recordings, and reflections on why we value and continue to come back to this musical medium. We proudly present, your weekly #artsongfix!