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To learn more aboutMiss Wheatley’s Garden, read the composer notes, listen to performances and view score samples below!
I Want to Die While You Love Me performed by the composer
A Winter Twilight performed by the composer
Songs for the People
Songs for the People performed by Dr. Jeanine Wagner, soprano and Margaret Simmons, piano
♦About the Title…
Miss Wheatley’s Garden is named for America’s first black poet Phillis Wheatley who is said to have been born in Gambia, Senegal (Africa) between 1753 and 1755, and died in December 1784 in Boston, Massachusetts. Wheatley was brought to America at age seven or eight and became the slave of John and Susanna Wheatley of Boston, on July 11, 1781. Her name is said to have derived from the ship that carried her to America, The Phillis. During Phillis’ life, while it was not common for American women to be published, it was especially uncommon for children of slaves to be educated at all. By age twelve, Phillis was reading the Bible, as well as Latin and Greek literature. Her gift of writing poetry was championed by her owners and their daughter, Mary who taught Phillis to read and write. Phillis’s first poem was published at the age of twelve, “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin.” Phillis became a Boston sensation after she wrote a poem on the death of the evangelical preacher George Whitefield in 1770. Three years later, thirty-nine of her poems were published in London as “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.” It was the first book to be published by a black American.
Miss Wheatley’s popularity as a poet both in the United States and England ultimately brought her freedom from slavery on October 18, 1773. She even appeared before General George Washington who was impressed with her accomplishments in March, 1776. Miss Wheatley is remembered for many first time accomplishments, including: first African American to publish a book; an accomplished African-American woman of letters; first African-American woman to earn a living from her writing. Because of these accomplishments, I thought it befitting to title the work Miss Wheatley’s Garden in honor of Phyllis Wheatley’s works which are the garden in which many generations of African-American women poets have blossomed.
On Being Brought From Africa To America
‘Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land,
Taught my beknighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Savior too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their color is a diabolic dye.”
Remember Christians; Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
♦About the Poets…
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911) was born free in Baltimore, Maryland. Her parents died when she was very young. After which, Harper was raised and educated by an uncle who ran a school for free blacks. During her early adult years, Harper was a teacher in Ohio and Pennsylvania. In the 1850’s, perturbed by the injustices suffered by her people due to slave laws, Harper began to serve as a lecturer for the abolition of slavery. For a period of time, she worked at the Underground Railroad station in Philadelphia. There, she heard firsthand, the doleful stories of runaway slaves. These stories became an important part of Harper’s poetic voice. In time, Harper’s works and influence received national attention. She was considered to be the leading black poet of her time. Her writings include articles, essays, novels, and copious poems. Iola Leroy, published in 1893, was one of the most popular novels written by an African American in the nineteenth century.
Angelina Weld Grimké (1880-1958 ) was born of mixed heritage in Boston, Massachussetts, to the parents of Archibald and Sarah Grimké. Her father, the son of a slave, was a lawyer and the executive director of the NAACP. Her mother, who was white, is believed to have been placed in a mental institution not long after her daughter’s birth. Grimké attended private schools as a young girl and graduated from the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics in 1902. Most of her writings were produced during her adult years as an English teacher in Washington, D.C. Her best-known work, Rachel, produced in 1916, is credited as the first staged play by an African American. Full of imagery, Grimke’s poems revolve around nature and restrained romance.
Georgia Douglas Johnson (1877-1966), considered to be the most prolific female poet of the Harlem Renaissance, was the first black woman since Frances E.W. Harper to receive national acclaim in literary circles. Johnson was born in Atlanta, Georgia, graduated from Atlanta University and the Oberlin Conservatory of music, and settled in Washington, D.C. Johnson’s poetry deals frequently with love and life observations. Her artistic output includes works as a playwright, fiction writer, songwriter, journalist and poet. She published four volumes of verse: The Heart of a Woman (1918), Bronze (1922), An Autumn Love Cycle (1928), and Share My World (1962).
I Want to Die While You Love Me
I was immediately drawn to this poem when I first read it. Georgia Douglass Johnson describes a day in which she and her beloved experience the height of passion; one day spent alone in which each finds his/her heart’s pleasure in the other and the fire of love is full flame. It is a day that the Johnson hopes will never end and wishes to carry to her death: “and bear to that still bed, your kisses, turbulent (passionate), unspent, to warm me when I’m dead.” The poet longs to die in the bliss of this moment such that she “never sees the glory of this perfect day grow dim or cease to be.” One might ask “Why should one desire death in the midst of such joy?” The poet answers: “Oh, who would care to live til love has nothing more to ask and nothing more to give, I want to die while you love me.” The reality is that love may wane; that the passion experienced today may die in time. Therefore, Johnson’s ultimate desire is to “die while you love me”. As a composer, I found Johnson’s lyrical and poignant poetry to be most inspiring for musical development. Her ability to share such depth of passion succinctly took my breath away. At times, because of the depth to which she had touched my heart, I wondered if I could adequately share with others musically what Johnson had shared with me. And, I am humbled to be the vehicle through which Ms. Johnson’s poetry may touch the hearts of many others.
I Want to Die While You Love Me is composed in modified strophic form. It begins simply with a piano introduction that sets the mood of a carefree day (perhaps out in a field with a gentle breeze blowing. I pictured the sun shining warmly and a perfect sky.) I marked it moderately slow, rather than slow, because it takes on a sadness not present in the poetry if sung too slowly. The B section (beginning at meas. 17) is marked “slightly agitated” to express the mood change from one of serenity to “turbulence” of the kisses. It returns to “serenely” to express the peace she will experience in death because of these kisses (meas. 22). Beginning at meas. 25, the singer should be careful to observe the frequent dynamic and tempo changes which serve to express the increased passion and build to the passionate climax (meas. 51). Measure 35 is the return to the A section. Measure 46 marks the beginning of the coda. The singer should consider smiling on the last phrase through the end. Be sure to listen for the final sounding of the poetry in the piano (mm 56-58).
A Winter Twilight
A Winter Twilight expresses both the longing and peace of the poet in her twilight years who is haunted by the spirit and memories of her beloved.
The song, which is through-composed, begins with the haunting spirit motif heard in the first two measures of the piano introduction which represents the presence of the beloved. As the poet sleeps, she is awakened and beckoned by the spirit. The beckoning of the spirit is heard in the piano introduction, measures 3 and 4. Having been summoned, the poet arises, makes her way into the night air, intoxicated by the quietness and sense of “aloneness”. It is a strange silence that assures her of the presence of her beloved (“A silence, slipping around like death.”) Be careful not to miss the text painting of the rest in measure 6 which represents “silence”. Let the audience hear the silence before continuing the phrase. This silence, through which the spirit of the beloved communicates, would be “chased” away by even the quietest whisper, sigh or breath. The triplet, eight-note “slipping” serves to paint a melodic picture of a spirit moving around (meas 7). As the singer sings “death” we hear the spirit motif once again in the piano part. This reminds us that the spirit of the beloved is present in the peculiar silence of the night. In “yet chased by a whisper,” I wanted to paint the text with quicker notes (16ths) ascending, chasing one another through stepwise movement. The decrescendo on “whisper” serves to encourage the singer to try to sing a “whisper” to express the text. The fermata over the eighth rest in measure 11, represents the silence that normally follows a sigh. I desired to set off the poetic ideas of whisper, sigh and breath so I placed a retard to give the singers the opportunity to really interpret these words for the audience. On “breath” we move back into tempo with the spirit motif (meas. 12).
In meas. 14, the piano plays the beckoning motif as the spirit directs the poet to a group of trees. The poet is drawn back in her mind to the days of her youth when she and her beloved walked among the trees that stand before her in the distance. These trees which were so green and full of blossoms now stand “naked and cold,” indicating that it is late fall or early winter. As well, the trees, like the poet, are now old. She observes the drawing of their shapes (“inking their crest”) “gainst a sky green gold” (perhaps the colors of the moon against a slowly rising sun which has only just begun to dawn.)
In meas. 21, we hear the beckoning motif again, as the spirit directs the poet’s attention to the special path that lead to the cornflowers wherein they expressed undying love. The playfulness of the accompaniment is meant to reflect those days so long ago (perhaps that special day in “I Want to Die While You Love Me”) when she and her beloved were lovingly playful in the cornflowers. Those were days they thought would never end. And as she travels the path, the poet sees, in the distance, the fir tree on which she and her beloved inscribed their names within a heart. As with the other nature symbols, this fir tree which once represented two hearts celebrating life, the future and the joy of love—like her—now stands alone.
But all is not lost because over this lonely fir tree, leaning down (don’t miss the word painting as the notes descend on “leaning down”), is a star (her beloved) that she loved when (“ere) when “the fields went brown”. Here “brown” represents death and once again we hear the spirit motif (meas. 31-32) as he prepares to depart. But, before leaving, the spirit, through the twinkling of the star that hangs down over the fir tree (heard in the piano’s eighth-note followed by two half notes in mm 32-33) reminds the poet that she is still his beloved and he is always with her—even in death. The final chord of the piano represents the poet’s sense of contentment and peace.
Generally, I encourage the singer to paint the scenes presented in nature and as experienced by the poet. The singer can use his/her eyes to help the audience see where the path, cornfields, fir tree and star are located by gazing afar off. I especially would encourage the singer to help the audience hear and see the star twinkle with a sudden head movement or facial gestures. A smile would be very nice when the star twinkles to acknowledge to both the audience and the beloved that you didn’t miss this special moment with the beloved. It might be nice to maintain the smile on the final chord to confirm that the poet’s and the beloved’s souls are now at peace once again.
Songs for the People (Notes coming soon!)