Art Songs

Powell’s Miss Wheatley’s Garden is a wonderful tribute to the legacy of Phyllis Wheatley. The texts are full of imagery and color which Powell captures in her writing. The songs are well-crafted with warm harmonies and appealing vocal lines. The songs of Miss Wheatley’s Garden are a delight to sing and are a great addition to the vocal repertoire.”

Marcía Porter, award-winning soprano
Associate Professor of Voice, Florida State University College of Music.


*Miss Wheatley’s Garden and Then, Here, and Now for both high and low voices are available through Hal Leonard, Amazon.com, JWPEPPER, and other music distributors!


MISS WHEATLEY’S GARDEN (2015)

Marcía Porter, soprano,
Valerie Trujillo, piano

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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

I want to Die While You Love Medium High Score Sample, pp 1-2

I want to Die While You Love Me, Med Low Score Sample, p. 1

A Winter Twilight performed by the composer

A Winter Twilight, medium high voice score sample

A Winter Twilight, Medium Low Voice Score Sample, pp 1-2

Songs for the People

Songs for the People performed by Dr. Jeanine Wagner, soprano and Margaret Simmons, piano

Songs for the People 2011 medium high Score Sample, pp 1-2

Songs for the People, Medium Low Score Sample, p 1

About the Title…

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. —-Phillis Wheatley

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. Miss Wheatley’s popularity as a poet both in the United States and England ultimately brought her freedom from slavery on October 18, 1773.  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 grown and blossomed.

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).

Composer Notes…

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

Songs for the People,  composed in ABA form, opens with a delightful melody in the piano that reappears in measures eleven and forty-three. This melody  supports the main poetic idea of the song which is that the poet’s song has as its objective to relieve the tension caused by the cares of life. The rhythmic, dance-like pattern introduced in measure three is a second unifying element that reappears throughout the song.  The B section (measures 23-36) begins as a dark contrast to the A section.  However, it ends with the hope of peace.  This section is characterized by the frequent use of dissonance and chromaticism.  The song ends with an abbreviated restatement of the A section. Two compositional devices employed throughout the song are doubling of the vocal line by the piano and text painting (I.e., when the music reflects the literal meaning of the text or depicts musically specific words in the poetry). Text painting can be heard one the words “fret, clashing cymbals, anthems, float, hush, and discord.”  The composer encourages the singer to draw the audience’s attention to the contrasts found in the vicissitudes of life.  The singer must express a joyful belief in the power of music to accomplish good.


THEN, HERE AND NOW
(NEW JULY 2021!)

JG074 – High voice/ JG0748 – Low Voice


Then, Here and Now is a cycle of four art songs based on African American spirituals. Each song reflects my visceral and emotional reactions to dramatic events which transpired during 2020. As I observed the worldwide responses to the outbreak of Covid-19, the death of George Floyd, and protests around the world, I became benumbed, emotionally exhausted. Tears were my daily companion, expressing what could not be uttered. In time, words came–not my own–the words of the spiritual. Intuitively they came, the way my grandmother sang and hummed them as she struggled to breathe during asthmatic episodes, as a response to the death of a loved one, or just sat, Bible in hand. I hummed, sang, and wept, laden with waves of sorrow, the cycle repeating itself, seemingly without end. The words and melodies of the spiritual gave voice to my sorrow–just as they did for my grandmother and my ancestors during slavery. Thus, the title, Then, Here and Now, which refers to the spirituals’ enduring messages of hope, strength, healing, freedom, and justice. Because of their universal messages, it is my intention for Then, Here and Now to be performed and embraced by people of all races, cultures, nationalities, and backgrounds. My hope is that these songs will provide a sense of catharsis for both the performer and the listener. Each song is composed as a succinct statement of the main idea of the original folk song. As such, it does not utilize the entire spiritual–words, melodies, rhythms, harmonies, and form–which would be indicative of an arrangement or adaptation. In preparing these songs, I encourage singers to listen to and study concert arrangements of the original folk song for a deeper understanding and greater depth of expression. I have provided optional notes to make the songs more accessible to both developing and advanced singers. Additionally, the optional notes can provide varied opportunities for expression. The songs in the cycle can stand alone and be performed in any order which best serves the singer. Each song is dedicated with much admiration for and appreciation to a professional singer-educator who has been influential in preserving the African American spiritual and providing visibility for art songs by African American composers.

I. Healing employs as its lyrics, the refrain of the spiritual There Is a Balm in Gilead. Covid-19–the global pandemic which ravaged the world–serves as the impetus for this song. Healing expresses the unyielding hope of both the one who suffers and the caregiver. The introduction, measures 1-4, represents the desperate heart-cry of the sufferer who hopes for healing and the voice of the caregiver who encourages the sufferer to persevere. The piano and voice play an equal role in expressing the text as the piano doubles the voice in addition to serving as harmonic support. In measures 5-9, the piano plays an interlude which represents the trickle of the healing balm (medicine) which grows into a river of balm for the healing of the sufferer. The flowing of the balm continues in the RH of the piano throughout the song while the LH expresses the depth of the healing with whole notes in the lower range of the piano. The piano joins the voice in expressing the text by singing the refrain “a balm in Gilead” with eighth notes in the upper range after each sung phrase. The piano makes the final statement of the text as it echoes “the troubled soul” in the LH of measure 16. This is followed by a gradual molto ritard in the final measure which represents the slowing flow of the balm to a trickle and its halt upon healing of the sufferer.

II.  Oppression is defined as the exercise of power in an unjust manner; or the experience of being heavily burdened to the point of feeling or being powerless to control one’s life. The spiritual, Go Down, Moses on which Oppression is composed, uses as its text the biblical account of Moses, the leader of the Israelite people, who is charged with confronting Pharaoh, the ruler of the Egyptians, to demand that the Israelites be set free from slavery. In the eighteenth century, the African American slaves used this story to empower themselves to resist slavery, boldly confront their oppressors and courageously attempt escape to freedom. Today, oppression is experienced in the form of bullying, domestic violence, human trafficking, and discrimination; as well as harassment, aggression and microaggression in the workplace, to name a few. Many of us have encountered a “Pharaoh” in our lives while some have been called to be a “Moses,” standing in the gap for others who are being oppressed. In Oppression, the piano introduction (mm 1-2) and postlude (mm 26-27) represent the seemingly mundane life of the oppressed to the casual observer. In measure 3, the voice enters with an introductory command for the listener to be a “Moses” and actively engage in assisting the oppressed. “Egypt’s land” symbolizes the place, state of being, or circumstances in which the exploited find themselves. The introduction ends at measure 12, as the story’s narrative begins. At measure 17, the accompaniment takes on the musical flavor of a Middle Eastern dance to foreshadow the celebration that will occur when the oppressed are set free. The humming which begins at measure 23, represents Moses’s thoughtful consideration of the call. Will he (i.e., the singer or the listener) come to the aid of the oppressed? That is the question posed in the hum of measure 25. In the postlude (mm 26-27), Moses observes again the oppressed laboring under the watchful eye of the oppressor. What will be his response to the call? The singer alone provides the answer of “yes, no, or maybe” in the final hum through facial expressions and body language.

III. On May 25, 2020, I watched George Floyd die mercilessly on the streets of Minneapolis. As he cried out “mama!” with his last breaths, I wept and sang the spiritual, I Wanna Die Easy When I Die. Dying sets the original text of the spiritual with additional words and a new melody. The calmness of a quiet death is depicted in the simplicity of the vocal line which should be sung with ease. The voice is supported by a light and airy accompaniment which depicts a quiet, radiant morning. The brief, contrasting section, “Shout salvation as I fly, tell my mother not to cry,’’ should be sung strongly expressing Floyd’s desperate plea for his mother while dying.

IV. On May 26, 2020, “the walls came tumbling down” as peaceful protests grew violent in Minneapolis, MN, and around the world. Protest, which sets the lyrics and extracts rhythmic and melodic material from the spiritual Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho depicts the intense battles between police and protestors through the fast and steady tempo of a piano accompaniment comprised of ostinato, agitated rhythms, strong syncopation, and accented chord clusters. Often, the voice is bolstered by the RH of the piano which doubles the vocal line in octaves. In measure 43, the walls of oppression are heard “tumbling down” as descending, chromatic eighth notes in the piano. May these songs inspire us to be agents of healing and positive change for our communities, our country, and our world…here and now!