Sunday 4 December 2022

Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar celebrated at the London Song Festival including songs by Coleridge Taylor, Florence Price, William Grant Still & the premiere of one of my settings

Paul Laurence Dunbar
Paul Laurence Dunbar
A celebration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Paul Laurence Dunbar - Samuel Coleridge Taylor, Adolphus Hailstork, John Rosamond Johnson, Florence Price, William Grant Still, Betty Jackson-King, John Carrington, Charles Lloyd, Robert Hugill; Gweneth Ann Rand, Ronald Samm, Nigel Foster, Michael Harper; London Song Festival at Hinde Street Methodist Church
2 December 2022

The friendship between Dunbar and Coleridge Taylor thrown into relief by the diverse settings of Dunbar's poetry alongside other poems in a wonderfully engaging programme

On Friday 2 December 2022, the London Song Festival, artistic director Nigel Foster, celebrated the 150th anniversary of the birth of the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar with a concert at Hinde Street Methodist Church where soprano Gweneth Ann Rand and tenor Ronald Samm, accompanied by Nigel Foster (piano), performed settings of Dunbar's poetry, with further poetry read by Michael Harper. The programme included Samuel Coleridge Taylor's African Romances, Op. 17, plus songs by Adolphus Hailstork, John Rosamond Johnson, Florence Price, William Grant Still, Betty Jackson King, John Carrington and Charles Lloyd, and the premiere of my own Dunbar setting We wear the mask.

Whilst Dunbar's friendship with Samuel Coleridge Taylor led to the composer exploring his own African heritage, their collaboration on the seven songs of African Romances, Op. 17 remains firmly European in mood and 19th century in style. As with many of Coleridge Taylor's songs, these have one foot in the parlour; after all, they were written for publication, the first art songs to be published by a black composer setting words by a black poet. The beauty of Coleridge Taylor's writing is the way he applied imagination to the form. Each song was beautifully constructed, with an underlying rhythm or closed form over which the melody ebbed and flowed. The songs were divided between Gweneth Ann Rand and Ronald Samm, and both singers gave a lovely attention to word and phrase. We had no printed texts and we certainly did not need them. Both singers seemed to positively enjoy this music, and both are known for their larger, more dramatic repertoire (Samm sings Siegmund next year with Regent Opera, Rand is known for singing roles like Aida and for performing Messiaen). Here they relaxed somewhat and enjoyed creating more relaxed mini dramas.

Foster's programme split up Coleridge Taylor's songs, dividing the evening into themed sections, Love, Parting and Discord, Signs of the Times, and Suffering, Hope and Defiance. The songs were interwoven with further Dunbar poetry, beautifully read by Michael Harper. And the language of both poetry and song moved easily between standard English and dialect, reflecting the way Dunbar wrote in each.

Invitation to Love by Augustus Hailstork (born 1941) dates from the 1990s and proved rather intriguing, with an impulsive vocal line (sung by Rand) over a more subtle piano. Somewhat traditional for its date, but extremely effective. John Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954) wrote in a totally different style, his setting of L'il Gal dates from 1902 and was delightfully Ragtime in feel, engagingly sung by Samm.

We heard five songs by Florence Price (1887-1953), Beside the Sea, Sympathy (I know what the caged bird feels), My Neighbour, What's the Use? and The Poet and his Song. Many of Price's songs are undated, and unpublished until well after her death. Like that of Coleridge Taylor, her style can be conservative but highly imaginative. Rand brought a delightful sense of narrative to Beside the Sea, whilst Sympathy, perhaps her best-known song here sung by Samm, was all about the words and the powerful message. My Neighbour and What's the Use? were both short and delightful, whilst The Poet and his Song, which closed the recital, was done as a duet. Several songs were performed like this, with Rand and Samm developing an engaging sense of rapport.

William Grant Still (1895-1978) was very much the elder statesman of African-American composers; very prolific, his output included five symphonies and eight operas with several firsts. Parted dates from 1949 with Samm creating vivid drama from Dunbar's wittily pointed words, whilst Winter's Approach was delightfully bluesy. Sung as a duet to close the first half, each singer took an opposing point of view, to engaging effect.

Betty Jackson-King (1928-1994) wrote Theology in 1990, a song with an interesting mix of influences and a lovely pointed final line. Little is known about John Carrington, he was a singer whose career flourished between 1892 and 1909 including giving the American premiere of Brahms' Four Serious Songs in 1896, singing Kurwenal in Tristan und Isole at Covent Garden conducted by Mahler, and making his Met debut in 1896 as Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger. A little dreaming by the way was published in 1899; a lovely song which brought out a range of influences. Charles Lloyd (born 1948) wrote Compensation in 1977, a rather serious and intense piece.

My own song received a terrific performance from Ronald Samm and Nigel Foster.

This was a lovely and fascinating evening. There was a distinct sense of both singers letting their hair down a little. They treated all the songs with the love and care they deserved, whilst never trying to make them more than they were. Rand, Samm and Foster all slipped easily between the various musical styles, and it was a testament to Dunbar's wide appeal as a poet that so many different composers set his works. Michael Harper contributed to the whole with his engaging readings of so many apposite poems.

There is a Dunbar Music Archive, maintained by the University of Dayton, which records settings of Dunbar's words.

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