Piece of the Week 57 – The Gift to Sing

This song, for SATB and piano, is a setting of the poem by James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), the American writer, poet, and civil rights activist, and leader of the National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The poem tells us that whatever troubles life might bring, singing will ‘turn the gloom to cheerful day’, and its three verses tread the path from gloom to joy: here are the first and last verses:

Sometimes the mist o’erhangs my path,
And blackening clouds about me cling;
But, oh, I have a magic way
To turn the gloom to cheerful day –
I softly sing.

I brood not o’er the broken past,
Nor dread whatever time may bring;
No nights are dark, no days are long,
While in my heart there swells a song –
And I can sing!

I gave each verse a sombre minor-modal tune, similar but laid out or harmonised differently in each: but between each verse I added a few bars of vocalising (‘ah’s’) descending in an imitative pattern, as if trying the voice out, and in the last verse these become louder and triumphant, and for the first time in a major key. The song then concludes with a hummed rising passage, quietly confirming the healing power of singing.

I wrote this song in 2022-3 and it forms part of my cantata ‘Endless Song’, from which most of the movements can also be performed separately. The complete Endless Song (for SATB choir and strings, or piano) was commissioned by the Waltham Singers, conductor Andrew Fardell, and first performed in 2023: another complete performance, by Colchester Choral Society (director Ian Ray), is scheduled for 22 June 2024.

Here is a link to a live recording of The Gift to Sing, with scrolling score

Links to recordings and purchase details of The Gift to Sing are here

And links to recording and details of the complete Endless Song are here

The image is of the poet, James Weldon Johnson.