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.
This beloved 20th century art song floats in on a cloud of nostalgia. The narrator recalls a single moment – most of us have experienced at least one – where time stood still and everything was right in the world.
Robert Hillyer's poem awakens the senses as he recalls the sights, sounds and scents of being in love while living abroad at age twenty. The memory becomes more intoxicating with each new detail: It was a summer morning. Perfect greenery hung overhead. The sidewalks smelled of fresh rain as they were being washed down.
American composer Ned Rorem spent a formative decade of his own life living in France from 1949-1958. He brings the poem to life with a lilting melody and gently rocking gestures in the piano. Perhaps there is a single twinge of longing for the pleasures of youth as the narrator looks back on that distant moment; but then again, there is pleasure in keeping the memory alive across the years, too.
As you listen to this song, perhaps you will take a moment to resurface your own memories of youth, travel, and love.
Please enjoy this performance, featuring myself with pianist Mark Bilyeu, live in concert on February 2, 2017 at the State Street Gallery in Chicago.
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!