What better way to round out National Poetry Month than a concert featuring work by the U.S. Poet Laureate about one of the defining cataclysms of this nation’s history? The work in question was I will tell you the truth about this, I will tell you all about it, an in-progress oratorio with words by Tracy K. Smith and music by Aaron Siegel, and its first half was premiered on April 30 by Songs of Solomon, a Harlem choir, under the direction of Bishop Chantel Wright, with soloists Michele Kennedy and Eric McKeever at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Smith constructed the libretto of the work from letters sent by African American soldiers and their families during and after the U.S. Civil War, preserving their language down to the original spelling and punctuation. Some of the texts are warmly affectionate, like the father who writes to his children to assure them he has not forgotten them. Others range from earnest entreaties (“Mr abarham lincon/I wont to knw sir if you please/whether I can have my son relest/from the arme”) to bleak narratives of loss and family separation. They contain moments of wry confidence (“Your Miss Kaitty said that I tried/to steal you You tell her from me that if she/meets me with ten thousand soldiers she will meet/Her enemy”) alongside lines of deep yearning (“It is my Desire to be free to go to see my people”) and devastating understatement (“My boy was dead. He died directly/after getting down from the wagon./Next morning I walked to Nicholasville./I dug a grave and buried my child.”).

Bishop Chantel Wright conducting Songs of Solomon
April 30, 2019
Photograph: Aaron Siegel

Faced with such charged text to set, the temptation might be to produce equally charged music, but Siegel went a different route. Spinning out fluttering textures of interlocked voices, his music had an elevated subtlety, as weighty and solemn as polished stones, but quivering always with the pulse of life. This was most powerful in the fourth movement, where Kennedy’s impassioned and florid descant over the choir’s stately loop of mournful chords sounded at once ancient and eternal. But a close second is the work’s arresting opening, with its rustling repetitions of “Mr abarham lincon.”

Those repetitions conjured up the voices of those whose words have not been preserved until our time – for every letter we have, we can only imagine how many others faced similar circumstances – the choir working in alignment with the soloist. In other movements, the choir and soloist were at odds. The third movement featured McKeever embodying a father recounting the evitable death of his son. His angular melodic line was shot through with stumbling pauses, moments where unspeakable grief cracked the surface of the clinical narrative. The choir, meanwhile, sang bell tones, growing into warm, radiant clusters at the climax of the movement, suggesting a wider world utterly oblivious to the unfolding personal tragedy.

Michele Kennedy singing with Songs of Solomon
April 30, 2019
Photograph: Aaron Siegel

In a panel discussion after the performance, Wright joked with Siegel about the difficulty of the music, but if the Songs of Solomon Choir struggled in rehearsals, that was hardly evident in the final performance. They did have a piano doubling some of the vocal lines, but the singers didn’t seem to be relying on it, and their diction was admirable—the fifth movement is a fast, imitative dovetailing of fragments from many letters, and I was able to follow most of the overlapping text with ease. McKeever had an unassailable gravitas in his baritone arias, and Kennedy’s fluid soprano was graceful and lithe. Wright conducted with character and conviction.

Perhaps anticipating the question of why a white man was chosen to compose this work, Wright, Siegel, and Smith addressed the issue directly in the post-performance panel. Siegel initially hesitated to take on this project, but Smith said she told him “This is an American story, and you’re an American composer. You’re part of this.” It was less a milquetoast platitude about disregarding pertinent social classes, and more a quiet reminder that white people must actively do the work of dismantling white supremacy.

Like I will tell you the truth, that work remains unfinished. The oratorio will likely be done within a year or two. Would that ending racism and truly addressing its past effects could be accomplished so swiftly.

Brin Solomon writes words and music in several genres and is doing their best to queer all of them. Solomon majored in composition at Yale University before earning their MFA in Musical Theatre Writing at NYU/Tisch. Their full-length musical Window Full of Moths has been hailed for its “extraordinary songs” that “add magic to otherwise ordinary lives”, and their latest one-act, Have You Tried Not Being A Monster, has been described as “agitprop for Julia Serrano.” Their writing has appeared in VAN, New Classic LA, and National Sawdust Log, and they recently won runner-up at the 2018 Rubin Institute for Music Criticism.

Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.