Friday 25 November 2022

We wear the mask: Paul Laurence Dunbar, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and a friendship in song

Paul Laurence Dunbar
Paul Laurence Dunbar
Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was an American poet and writer born to parents who had been enslaved. He began writing stories and verse when he was a child and was one of the first African-American writers to establish an international reputation. He wrote the lyrics to the musical In Dahomey (1903), the first African-American musical produced on Broadway. He died from TB at the age of 33.

Dunbar had wanted to study law, but his family situation meant that there was no money for him to go to college, and racial prejudice prevented him from getting anything but a lowly job. However, this did mean that he had time to write verse, stories and articles

Despite a relatively short career, he published a dozen books of poetry, four books of short stories and four novels. He wrote poetry both in conventional English and the dialect associated with African-Americans in the antebellum South. His importance is highlighted by Dunbar's friend James Weldon Johnson in the preface to his Book of American Poetry: 

"Paul Laurence Dunbar stands out as the first poet from the Negro race in the United States to show a combined mastery over poetic material and poetic technique, to reveal innate literary distinction in what he wrote, and to maintain a high level of performance. He was the first to rise to a height from which he could take a perspective view of his own race. He was the first to see objectively its humor, its superstitions, its short-comings; the first to feel sympathetically its heart-wounds, its yearnings, its aspirations, and to voice them all in a purely literary form."

In 1897 he travelled to Europe for a literary tour, giving performances (reciting his works) in London and met Samuel Coleridge-Taylor there. Coleridge-Taylor not only set some of Dunbar's lyrics (including the African Romances, Op. 17) but was influenced by Dunbar to use African and American Negro songs in his music, encouraging the composer to draw on his own Sierra Leonean ancestry. The two gave a joint recital in London, and it was in London that Dunbar worked on his first novel, The Uncalled (1898) and found publishers for a British edition of his collection of verse, Lyrics of Lowly Life. The two also worked on the operetta Dream Lovers

On 2 December 2022, Nigel Foster's London Song Festival will be exploring Dunbar and Coleridge-Taylor's friendship [further details & tickets]. Soprano Gweneth Ann Rand and tenor Ronald Samm will be performing Coleridge-Taylor's Dunbar settings alongside settings of the poet's lyrics by Florence Price, John Rosamond Johnson, William Grant Still, and Betty Jackson-King. The concert will feature the premiere of my setting of Dunbar's poem We wear the mask:

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
     And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
    We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
   We wear the mask!

Further ahead, there is more of my music when on 3 February 2023, Nigel Foster (piano) will be joined by Ben Vonberg-Clark (tenor) and James Atkinson (baritone) for Out of the Shadows, and an evening of my songs including the premieres of two cantatas. Further details from my website.

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