Songs of Lowly Life
Movement 1: Dawn
Movement 3: Not They Who Soar
Movement 2: Life
Movement 4: Lullaby
Movement 5: Old
SATB (div.) a cappella
Volti; Robert Geary, conductor
Paul Laurence Dunbar
Inkjar Publishing Company
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When Volti commissioned me for a new choral piece, I seized the opportunity to feature the poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Dunbar was the first African-American poet and novelist to gain national and international recognition. Born in Dayton, Ohio in 1872, his mother was a former slave and his father had escaped from slavery prior to serving in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry Regiment during the Civil War. Dunbar began writing poetry as a child and published his first book of poems, called Oak and Ivy, when he was twenty. This was followed by eleven additional books of poetry, four books of short stories, five novels, and a play. The subject matter of Dunbar’s poems encompasses a wide array of topics, from his observations of nature, love, and life to his renditions (many of which are written in dialect) of African American life. Dunbar’s life was ultimately cut short when he contracted tuberculosis and died at the age of 33 in 1906. The title for my song cycle is taken from Dunbar’s 1896 book Lyrics of Lowly Life, from which several of these texts were drawn. Five poems are set in this piece: Dawn, Life, Not They Who Soar, Lullaby, and Old.
An angel, robed in spotless white,
Bent down and kissed the sleeping Night.
Night woke to blush; the sprite was gone.
Men saw the blush and called it Dawn.
A crust of bread and a corner to sleep in,
A minute to smile and an hour to weep in,
A pint of joy to a peck of trouble,
And never a laugh but the moans come double;
And that is life!
A crust and a corner that love makes precious,
With the smile to warm and the tears to re-fresh us;
And joy seems sweeter when cares come after,
And a moan is the finest of foils for laughter;
And that is life!
III. Not They Who Soar
Not they who soar, but they who plod
Their rugged way, unhelped, to God
Are heroes; they who higher fare,
And, flying, fan the upper air,
Miss all the toil that hugs the sod.
'Tis they whose backs have felt the rod,
Whose feet have pressed the path unshod,
May smile upon defeated care,
Not they who soar.
High up there are no thorns to prod,
Nor boulders lurking 'neath the clod
To turn the keenness of the share,
For flight is ever free and rare;
But heroes they the soil who've trod,
Not they who soar!
Sing me, sweet, a soothing psalm,
Holy, tender, low, and calm,
Full of drowsy words and dreamy,
Sleep half seen where the sides are seamy;
Lay my head upon your breast;
Sing me to rest.
I have seen peoples come and go
Alike the Ocean'd ebb and flow;
I have seen kingdoms rise and fall
Like springtime shadows on a wall.
I have seen houses rendered great
That grew from life's debased estate,
And all, all, all is change I see,
So, dearest God, take me, take me.