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.
With the many thunderstorms we’ve been experiencing in Chicago this summer, one song has been on regular rotation in my mental playlist: Margaret Bonds’ Summer Storm, from her Songs of the Season cycle with texts by Langston Hughes.
A Chicago native, Margaret Bonds was born in 1913 into a musical family. Her mother, organist Estelle C. Bonds, was her first music teacher, and a close family friendship with Florence Price led to piano and composition lessons with the brilliant composer while Bonds was still in high school. In fact, Bonds went on to perform Price’s piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933. She later moved to New York, where she studied at Juilliard Graduate School and dedicated much of her career to supporting and advancing Black musicians and composers.
Simply put, we should know Margaret Bonds and her astonishing work much more than most of us do.
It was both exciting and challenging to dig into this particular song: Bonds embraces a broad palette of musical styles and colors in her work, and this song showcases that. From a blues-like anticipation of “July thunder” at the start, the music whirls into quick and angular “lightning in the sky, and a sudden gale that shakes the blossoms down.” The piano part then illustrates petals falling down like “confetti in your hair, confetti on the ground” as the vocal line gets swept into the love story unfolding in the “soft, sweet rain.”
The real thunder turns out to be a pounding heartbeat of being “hand in hand”, happy through the storm, with one’s love. Bonds creates a soaring ending that hearkens back to the start, exulting through Hughes’ words: “July thunder, in my heart, the wonder of love [...] The wonder of being in love with you.”
A fitting sentiment for today, in particular, as we celebrate Bridget’s July wedding this morning. Congratulations, Bridget - love to you and Elliot, and wishing you fairer weather than the thunderstorm in this song!
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!