Lee: A Stunning & Powerful Work

Frances Harper, c. 1902; courtesy:
New York Public Library Digital Collections

“I thought the texts of France Harper’s poem ‘A Double Standard’ would work very well for a stunning and powerful work.” And so, James Lee III introduces us to the poet who inspired his newest vocal chamber work A Double Standard. Commissioned by Carnegie Hall, Shriver Hall, Chamber Music Cincinnati, and Chamber Music Detroit, the one-movement, 14-minute work was composed for soprano and string quartet. Soprano Karen Slack and the Pacifica Quartet will premiere the work on May 6, 2022 at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall. A subsequent performance will take place on May 15 at Shriver Hall in Baltimore, MD.

The Pacifica Quartet and soprano Karen Slack

A Double Standard,” Lee observes, “uses the texts from a poem, which bears the same name, by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper — an African-American poet who was born free in Baltimore in 1825 and died in Philadelphia in 1911. I chose her poem because I had been familiar with her poetry. Ms. Harper was also an abolitionist, suffragist, teacher, public speaker and writer. In 1845, she was one of the first African-American women to be published in the United States. She often expressed her passion for social revolution through her poetry. This work, A Double Standard, is a musical journey that displays her pain and frustration of the biases against women and the 19th -century mindset of sex, gender, and societal roles. The work beings with an extended introduction in the strings that is highly agitated. Once the introduction is completed, the soprano sings a four-note motive on the words, ‘Do you blame me…’ and is frequently utilized when the word ‘blame’ is uttered. One can really sense the righteous indignation in Ms. Harper’s voice as she penned these words. Throughout A Double Standard various emotions are evoked at contrasting dynamic levels [leading to] the dramatic climax. The climax of both the poem and the music arrives when the string quartet vigorously and angrily ascends and is followed by the highest note that the soprano sings at a fortissimo dynamic…‘Crime has no sex and yet to-day—I wear the brand of shame;…When you so coldly crushed me down—And then excused the man?’”

Lee continues. “Ms. Harper addressed the double standards that are practiced in society when it comes to men and women, and how women are many times treated more harshly. She then calls on God to be the true judge and arbiter of justice with the words: ‘I’m glad God’s ways are not our ways, He does not see as man, Within His love I know there’s room—For those whom others ban.’ It is in this part of the music that there is a pause in the brash dissonance at it evokes the beauty of God’s throne and His righteous judgment. These musical passages are, however, short-lived as the agitated and frustrated nature of the poem and music returns on the words: ‘And what is wrong in woman’s life—In man’s cannot be right.’ The initial musical material returns and continues to demand positive change!”