Song of the Son for voice & piano


" of those rare new works that grabs the listener upon a first hearing."

- William Thomas Walker, Classical Voice North Carolina (Oct. 16, 2001)

Jean Toomer (1894-1967) was a writer and poet who influenced many of the artists of the Harlem Renaissance.  His first major work, Cane (1923) – a  circular narrative of prose, poetry and drama – was hailed by both black and white critics at the time as a significant achievement in American literature.  As the first work by an American writer to explore an artistic vision of the African-American experience, Cane was unprecedented, and Toomer was called the “most promising Negro writer” in American letters.  Contemporary artists who praised his work included Hart Crane, Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keefe.  This fame was short-lived, as Toomer became dissatisfied with his literary work, and began an exploration of mysticism and philosophy which would take over the path of his life.  Toomer wrote other pieces after Cane, but most of these works were non-dramatic in style, and dogmatic in tone.  None of them achieved the same
recognition as his first work, and most were rejected by editors and publishers as
being tedious and not of the same standard as Cane.

The three poems I have chosen for Song of the Son are all taken from Cane.  Toomer’s poetic language is visually rich, and lyrical in tone.  All three of them show a young African-American writer attempting to connect with his cultural heritage, and to communicate that heritage to the world.  In choosing to set these poems, it is my hope to assist Jean Toomer in that communication.

Song of the Son was composed in January-February, 1998, in Cedar Falls, Iowa.  It was given its world premiere by Gregory Wiest, tenor, and Nicole Winter, piano, on October 23, 1999, in Echtzeit Hall, Munich, Germany.  It was given its American premiere by Stafford Wing, tenor, and Julie Sargeant, piano, on October 7, 2001, at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The version for soprano was premiered by MaKayla McDonald (sop) and Dyan Meyer (pno) at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls on April 28, 2015.

For more information about Toomer and Cane, see Nellie Y. McKay, Jean Toomer, Artist – A Study of His Literary Life and Work, 1894-1936, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1984).

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tenor & piano; also for soprano, mezzo, or baritone & piano
Date completed:
ca. 8:30
Jean Toomer

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