Feb. 11, 2021Print | PDF
The Heart of a Woman (Georgia Douglas Johnson) from Nightsongs, Leslie Adams (b. 1932) [9:38]
Night (Louise C. Wallace) Florence Price [12:12]
Song to the Dark Virgin (Langston Hughes) (1887-1953) [14:00]
Boy’s Lips (Rita Dove) Libby Larsen [17:06]
Blonde Men from Love after 1950 (Julie Kane) (b. 1950) [19:58]
Hôtel (Guillaume Apollinaire) from Banalités,Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) [23:32]
Je ne t’aime pas, Kurt Weill (1900-1950) [25:33]
For you there is no song, Leslie Adams [30:05]
Midtide (Verna Arvey) from From the Hearts of Women (1895-1978), William Grant Still [33:26]
Susan’s Dream from Love Life, Kurt Weill [36:28]
Anna Ronai and I have been performing recitals together for several years now, increasingly with a focus on the voices of women, whether poets, composers or both. In the ongoing seismic shift precipitated by the murder of George Floyd, the prominence of Black Lives Matter and crucial conversations about systemic racism in traditional Western classical music education and performance, we felt deeper urgency around the amplification of Black voices as well—something we had, embarrassingly, not seen as a deep priority before. The fact that our program was scheduled in February—Black History Month—only further affirmed our commitment to broadening our repertoire choices. This led to our discovery of a treasure trove of musical delights, further underscored by the enthusiasm of our students to research, learn and perform this music the moment we urged them to do so. Our thanks go out to our entire studio of young singers, who truly laid much of the groundwork for this program.
These songs tell stories from a woman’s perspective (or at least through a woman’s lens) and encompass many preoccupations or states of being, from what “woman” means symbolically or metaphorically, to women’s desires, secrets, hopes, pains, disappointments, losses and discoveries. We hope they bring an important and necessary Black perspective to the conversation as well; we are both white women, but our desire is to use the platform afforded us by this Music at Noon series at Laurier, where we are both privileged to work and play, to raise up voices and stories that may be unfamiliar and unheard.
Given the digital format of this performance, we are using photographs to illustrate each song and excite the imagination of our audience. My daughter, Alice Philipp (@alicetookmypicture), is a budding photographer and videographer, whose particular area of interest is women’s power: all of these photographs are hers. She explores women in their most favoured environments, getting to know each woman and her hopes, fears and dreams, and photographing them in ways that emphasize their place of power and ownership. She has photographed many women of colour in this context, in an effort to allow their images to speak in the ways they wish. Alice’s images and creative process therefore reflect well the intentions of our program—shining a light on all the women she photographs whether black, white or brown and illuminating their personalities in all their nuanced glory.
Women are represented in literature in many guises, their qualities attributed metaphorically to the natural world (night, water, moon) or through their emotional expression (their open hearts, their sensuality). The first set of songs, Women’s Essence, explores these themes. All three songs in this set are written by Black American composers, every one of them previously unknown to us. H. Leslie Adams—one of the most prominent African American compositional voices in the art song genre, leads off the program with The Heart of a Woman, a soulful poem by African American poet Georgia Douglas Johnson from his cycle Nightsongs. This deeply felt setting captures the conflicting states of a woman’s heart—her longing to soar, to experience life with unbridled openness, contrasted with the feeling that she must remain caged, held back, clamouring against the bars of societal norms that purport to “shelter” her. Florence Price’s Night embodies metaphors of the eternal feminine, “a Madonna clad in scented blue”, her comforting presence offering succour to “a dreamy child, the wearied day”. She really takes flight, however, in her setting of Langston Hughes’ (a leader of the Harlem Renaissance) Song to the Dark Virgin. This ecstatic, erotic ode of devotion to a woman of colour demonstrates the young Hughes’ ability to capture the female essence. The song attracted immediate notice of Price’s work, particularly because famed Black American contralto Marian Anderson championed it. How is it, then, that Florence Price’s music is not regularly featured in song or orchestral programs on concert platforms? She attended the New England Conservatory, was a Wanamaker Prize winner and was commissioned by John Barbirolli to premiere an overture in Manchester. How has she escaped our notice? We feel that the power of her compositional voice can stand toe to toe with the so-called Great Masters (as indeed can H. Leslie Adams and William Grant Still), and this is our goal in presenting them here today.
Beginnings features three songs that represent that particular life stage when women first explore their sexuality. Pulitzer Prize-winning Rita Dove’s sultry poem about the secrets told by girls under cover of darkness is ably conjured in Libby Larsen’s bluesy setting. We can almost feel the dewy, sweaty skin, the warmth of breath whispering intimate details of discovery, the chirping of insects on a southern summer evening. Blond Men is more ambivalent; the protagonist here clearly has conflicted feelings about the general physical and emotional characteristics of what seems like one blond man in particular. Libby’s subtitle for this tune is “torch song”, and it most certainly lights up to a spectacular, well…climax. Francis Poulenc’s Hôtel is, quite deservedly, one of the iconic songs in the art song lexicon. The composer’s interpretive instruction is “very calm and lazy”, and the atmosphere created is decidedly decadent. One imagines waking up after a long night of debauchery, completely spent, in a Paris hotel room, the sun streaming through a chink in the curtains. Naturally, anyone in this situation would not want to work, they’d just want to smoke. Très français.
The songs of Endings encompass ways in which we experience loss—of a relationship, a life partner, or an artistic connection that binds two people. Kurt Weill wrote Je ne t’aime pas in 1934, the year after he had fled Nazi persecution and taken up exile in Paris. He left behind his homeland and beloved Berlin (where he had been the toast of the town in the 20’s for his famed Threepenny Opera), never to return. During this period, he was enduring the first of many ruptures in his relationship to his wife, confidante and muse, Lotte Lenya. Although originally written from a male perspective, Weill very much assumed a long-suffering, accommodating role vis-à-vis his flagrantly promiscuous partner (a role more frequently attributed to women). I always imagine a couple sitting at a dark bistro table having a painful conversation, deconstructing their relationship in this song. The agony for the partner on the receiving end is palpable: although clearly their feelings are quite au contraire, they keep insisting “I don’t love you”. According to www.poetryfoundation.org , Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “popularity as a poet had at least as much to do with her person: she was known for her riveting readings and performances, her progressive political stances, frank portrayal of both hetero and homosexuality, and, above all, her embodiment and description of new kinds of female experience and expression. ‘Edna St. Vincent Millay,’ notes her biographer Nancy Milford, ‘became the herald of the New Woman.’” H. Leslie Adams’ setting of her For you there is no song is full of “suppressed feelings and inner tension” (Kylie Ching, 2014), with musical interludes of great intensity, pushing and pulling the listener with the ebb and flow of the tide of human feeling, the fleeting nature of love and connection. As noted on the website of the African American Art Song Alliance, “Much like the songs of [German composer Robert] Schumann, the piano intercedes to complete fragments of thoughts where words fail.”
Midtide is the result of ongoing artistic collaboration between the late William Grant Still and his wife, Verna Arvey, to whom the song cycle From the Hearts of Women is dedicated. Each song of the set represents a different woman in a different set of circumstances; according to Ruth Robertson who has examined the songs in detail, they represent “a ‘verbal snapshot’ of four very different women of various ages.” In a personal artistic connection, this cycle was composed in 1959, the year of my birth, and Midtide is set almost like an epic recitative in the tradition of Monteverdi’s “Addio Roma”, riding the waves of a woman’s grief at loss of the love of her life.
Susan’s Dream, according to Mark N. Grant on the Kurt Weill Association’s website, was “the most affecting and original song” in Kurt Weill’s Love Life, now widely considered to be the prototype for the “concept musical” which has since become an off-Broadway staple. Weill had just finished collaborating with Langston Hughes on Street Scene, when he met the young Alan Jay Lerner (who would later be catapulted to fame as the lyricist for My Fair Lady), who wrote the lyrics for this show in 1948. Susan’s Dream was cut early on in the creative process (though it is frequently reinstated in revivals of the show), and with the sensibility of a post-modern feminist perhaps shows its age. But I like to think of it as the quintessential “glass half-full” song, reminding us to be grateful for the little gifts. This message is particularly poignant in this time of pandemic, where each day we have the choice to frame our own circumstances: Susan ultimately recognizes that nothing in life is perfect and chooses to embrace gratitude instead.
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