THE GENIUS CHILD
MUSIC: RICKY IAN GORDON
TEXT: LANGSTON HUGHES
1. Winter moon
2. Genius Child
3. Kid in the Park
4. To be somebody
5. Troubled Woman
6. Strange Hurt
9. My people
3 SONGS FOR BARITONE, OP. 41
MUSIC: ROBERT OWENS
TEXT: CLAUDE MAC KAY
11. The Lynching
12. If We Must Die
13. To the White Fiends
MUSIC: DOROTHY RUDD MOORE
TEXT: FREDERICK DOUGLAS
14. Fourth of July Speech
SELECTIONS FROM 5 SONGS OF LAURENCE HOPE
MUSIC: HARRY T. BURLEIGH
TEXT: ADELA CORY
15. The Jungle Flower
16. Among the Fuschias
17. Till I Wake
18. Worth While
19. Over My Head / Fix Me Jesus
20. City Called Heaven
21. Git On Board
I have always been inspired by Nina Simones quote that "it is the artists’ duty to reflect the times. That is true of Painters, Sculptors, Poets, and Musicians. Its obviously our choice but I choose to reflect the times and the situations in which I find myself and at this crucial time in our lives when everything is so desperate, when every day is a matter of survival , I think you cant help but be involved. That to me is the definition of an artist"!
This program is pretty unique and special to me as it originated from a lecture that I gave for the vocal division at The James J. Whalen School of Music at Ithaca College on Exploring the legacy of Black Composers in Opera and Art song during the Pandemic! The title of the project "Lament" was absolutely inspired by Langston Hughes' poem “Lament for Dark Peoples” which expresses pain for the injustices upon people of color.
-Professor Sidney Outlaw
NOTES ON THE ALBUM - by Evan L. Snyder
The Genius Child
Music by Ricky Ian Gordon (b. 1956)
Text by Langston Hughes (1901-1967)
For many listeners, the writings of Langston Hughes may need no introduction. Hughes was a leader in the Harlem Renaissance and a central figure of American poetry in the early 20th century. Today, he is considered by many one of the greatest American poets of all time.
Ricky Ian Gordon is an American composer, whose musical language emerges from the traditions of American musical theater and cabaret. His songs have been performed by many of America’s leading classical singers and his operas championed by many of the country’s most significant opera companies.
The Genius Child is a collection of ten poems, with an intriguing organization. The first six songs are each settings of brief, scenic poems. After the first song, “Winter moon,” a prologue of sorts, each of the following five focuses on an image of a single person (or in the case of “To be somebody,” two people). Ricky Ian Gordon’s theatrical settings breathe life in each of these brief characters, helping to pull from the page the hopes and pains inscribed in Hughes’s poems.
The final four songs in the collection mark a sudden change in style. Despite similar lengthed poems, Ricky Ian Gordon’s settings suddenly more than double in length, meditating on the texts, rather than setting them once through from beginning to end. At the same time, all of the poetry moves to the 1st person voice—suddenly our speaker is the subject of each poem and both the music and text take on an aspect both deeply intimate and personal.
The first of these, “The Prayer,” sees the singer asking a simple question of God, “Which way to go?” which Ricky Ian Gordon answers with an endless series of step-wise descents, creating a sense of searching, but never finding. This constant reaching in the accompaniment continues across the entire piece, even over the singers final note—perfectly capturing the sense of uncertainty that Hughes’s brilliant 33 word poem conveys.
3 Songs for Baritone
Music by Robert Owens (1925-2017)
Text by Claude McKay (1889-1948)
Throughout his considerable career as a composer and concert pianist, Robert Owens contributed over a dozen extended works for voice and piano to the repertoire. His songs set poetry by an incredible range of authors, American and European alike, but seemed to give special favor to the poets of the Harlem Renaissance.
One of these was the distinguished Jamaican-American poet and journalist, Claude McKay. Nearly forty years exactly after the poet’s death, Owens undertook setting three of McKay’s most difficult sonnets: “The Lynching” (1920), “If We Must Die” (1919), and “To the White Fiends” (1912). Each offers an indictment of racism and proffers a solution or answer, in typical sonnet fashion, although McKay frequently thwarts his audience expectations, by manipulating that aspect of the form.
In the first setting, “The Lynching,” McKay’s opening eight lines depict, through a variety of traditional Christian imagery, a picture of a man burned to death, hanged from a tree. At the poem’s turn, instead of offering some answer to the horrible crime that has occurred, McKay’s final lines simply depicts onlookers in the morning that follows. Owen’s setting heartbreakingly draws out the word “danced,” and gives life to that dance in the piano, underlining the horrible truth in McKay’s final lines:
“And little lads, lynchers that were to be,
Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.”
Frederick Douglass: Fourth of July Speech
Music and Text by Dorothy Rudd Moore (b. 1940)
Frederick Douglass gave his famous speech “What, to the slave, is the Fourth of July?” on July 5, 1852, in Corinthian Hall, Rochester, New York. He challenged his audience that day to consider the ideals of freedom and liberty for which that Independence Day was meant to stand, and the bitter irony of inviting a Black American to speak upon them, when most Black Americans were still enslaved. In this aria from her 1985 opera, Frederick Douglass, noted American composer and educator, Dorothy Rudd Moore captures not only the force of Douglass’s biting criticism, but also the powerful resolve with which he must have delivered those words.
5 Songs of Laurence Hope
Music by Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949)
Text by Adela Florence Nicolson (1865-1904)
Adela Florence Nicolson, also known as Violet Nicolson or Adela Cory, was an English author who wrote under the pseudonym Laurence Hope. Her short, but remarkable career led her to fame in the first few years of the 20th century, following her 1901 publication of Garden of Kama (or India’s Love Lyrics). This was a collection of poems which she claimed were translations of earlier poets, however, fairly shortly thereafter a consensus that these had in fact been her own original poems was reached. After her early death, her son published another volume of her work, Selected Poems.
Harry T. Burleigh was an American composer and arranger, as well as a professional baritone. He is often remarked upon with regards to his influential friendship with Anton Dvořák, to whom he introduced spirituals, as well as with regards to his performance career, which helped to open several historically white performance spaces to Black performers. Perhaps most remarkable, however, were his accomplishments as a composer of art song. During his lifetime, Burleigh was one of America’s most famous song composers, performed on concerts all over the country by the most highly regarded performers of his day.
Five Songs of Laurence Hope is a prime example of why Burleigh’s music was so successful. While unabashedly romantic sounding, with an extended harmonic language that could just as easily arise from influences of early jazz as from the chromatic context, the songs are still entirely approachable. The melodies are intuitive and well-supported by the piano part, the text is clear and its setting always dramatically compelling. The music is fundamentally vocal in nature, crafted with the singer in mind, from its first note to its last.
Encores — 3 Spirituals
Over My Head / Fix Me Jesus — Traditional
City Called Heaven — arranged by Hall Johnson (1888-1970)
Git on Board — arranged by Evelyn Simpson Curenton (b. 1953)
The individual origins of American spirituals are often difficult to trace. Sometimes these songs were carefully handed down through generations of enslaved Black Americans, only to have one person commit them to the page and claim sole credit decades later. Other times, so-called folklorists might claim to have collected traditional songs, and instead pass of their own original work as found, rather than composed.
Perhaps more important than origin, however, is their function. The spiritual is without question the richest and most complex folk tradition found in American music, but its most significant quality, by far, is the impact that it has had. “Git on Board,” for instance was first published in 1872, and is sometimes credited as traditional, but other times attributed to a Baptist Minister by the name of John Chamberlain. By the 1950s, however, it had become a protest song, with revised lyrics, such as “As fighters we go hungry, / sometimes don’t sleep or eat, / But when you fight for freedom, / In the end, you’ll be free.” Those words and their music helped to inspire in a people’s fight for equality: an incredible accomplishment, wherever they had begun.
Evan L. Snyder