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Three Seasons (Claude McKay Poems)

Listen to a performance by the New Hampshire Master Chorale conducted by Dan Perkins:

  • Score: $3 (for reproduction rights; minimum purchase of 10 required; additional charge for hard copies); set of parts: $8
  • For SATB chorus, English horn (doubling oboe), viola, cello, and harp
  • Secular text (three poems by a leading figure of the early Harlem Renaissance)
  • 12:30
  • Difficulty rating (1-5): 4
  • View a PDF score excerpt
  • Purchase, request full review copy or more information, etc.

Three Seasons (Claude McKay Poems) was commissioned by the New Hampshire Master Chorale, Dan Perkins, Music Director, and premiered by them on November 16, 2007

In my capacity as Composer in Residence for the New Hampshire Master Chorale, I’m always looking for texts to set with some connection to my adopted home state. In the midst of an Iinternet search for such poems, I discovered that Claude McKay (1889-1948), one of the leading early figures of the Harlem Renaissance, had been active in New Hampshire, that one of the poems he wrote here became the title of his third published book (Spring in New Hampshire, London, 1920), and that his New Hampshire poems were later reprinted in his book Harlem Shadows, cited by one source as the first collection of poetry by a black poet to be published by a major American publisher (Harcourt, Brace, 1922). After some more scholarly legwork, I discovered the specific nature of McKay’s New Hampshire connection—before settling in New York to begin his literary work in earnest, McKay worked as a janitor and houseman for a fraternity and hotel located near Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH. The poems set in this work come from this period in McKay’s life (1915-1916).

McKay’s later poetry passionately addresses the injustices inherent in the African-American experience—his philosophical journey led him from fervent activism, to Communism, to Catholicism late in his life. Even in the relatively early poems I’ve set in this piece, McKay places his lyrical descriptions of the beauty of nature and the pain of absent love squarely in the grim socioeconomic context that surrounded him as a black man in early 20th-Century America, and the menial labor required of him during his time here. It was an honor to set these texts, and, I hope to bring them to the attention of a contemporary audience.

“But my attitude was not very different from what it was in 1916 when I applied for a job as a houseman in a hotel in New Hampshire. The manager told me that he could only engage me temporarily because all the other workers (about 25) were white men and women and perhaps they would object to my working with them because I am a Negro. I went into that hotel to work with the full knowledge that I was not merely an ordinary worker, but that I was also a Negro, that I would not be judged on my merits as a worker alone. but on my behavior as a Negro. Up there in that little inn, nestling among the New Hampshire hills, the Negro (as in thousands of other places in America) was on trial not as a worker but as a strange species. And I went into that hotel to work for my bread and bed and also for my race. This situation is forced upon every intelligent Negro in America. In a few weeks I had won over the little hostile minority among the hotel workers; they all made demands on my company.”

—Claude McKay, letter to Max Eastman, 4/3/1923

“… the reviewer was mistaken when he said I was a student at Dartmouth. I worked as a janitor and houseman at the D.K.E. House and the Hanover Inn from 1915 until the spring of 1916, and my only connection with the college was that I used to go to the library at night sometimes to read.”

—McKay, letter to Harold Rugg, librarian at Dartmouth, 1921

I. Spring in New Hampshire

Too green the springing April grass,
        Too blue the silver-speckled sky,
For me to linger here, alas,
        While happy winds go laughing by,
Wasting the golden hours indoors,
Washing windows and scrubbing floors.

Too wonderful the April night,
        Too faintly sweet the first May flowers,
The stars too gloriously bright,
        For me to spend the evening hours,
When fields are fresh and streams are leaping,
Wearied, exhausted, dully sleeping.

II. Summer Morn in New Hampshire

All yesterday it poured, and all night long
        I could not sleep; the rain unceasing beat
Upon the shingled roof like a weird song,
        Upon the grass like running children's feet.
And down the mountains by the dark cloud kissed,
        Like a strange shape in filmy veiling dressed,
Slid slowly, silently, the wraith-like mist,
        And nestled soft against the earth's wet breast.

But lo, there was a miracle at dawn!
        The still air stirred at touch of the faint breeze,
The sun a sheet of gold bequeathed the lawn,
        The songsters twittered in the rustling trees.
And all things were transfigured in the day,
        But me whom radiant beauty could not move;
For you, more wonderful, were far away,
        And I was blind with hunger for your love.

III. Winter in the Country

Sweet life! how lovely to be here
And feel the soft sea-laden breeze
Strike my flushed face, the spruce's fair
Free limbs to see, the lesser trees'

Bare hands to touch, the sparrow's cheep
To heed, and watch his nimble flight
Above the short brown grass asleep.
Love glorious in his friendly might,

Music that every heart could bless,
And thoughts of life serene, divine,
Beyond my power to express,
Crowd round this lifted heart of mine!

But oh! to leave this paradise
For the city's dirty basement room,
Where, beauty hidden from the eyes,
A table, bed, bureau, and broom

In corner set, two crippled chairs
All covered up with dust and grim
With hideousness and scars of years,
And gaslight burning weird and dim,

Will welcome me . . . And yet, and yet
This very wind, the winter birds
The glory of the soft sunset,
Come there to me in words.

—Claude McKay

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Jonathan Santore
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