ed. John Michael Cooper

  • Voice, piano
  • 2 min
  • Langston Hughes
  • English

Programme Note

Florence Price's Judgement Day is based on the poem of the same title by Price's visionary younger contemporary Langston Hughes (1902-1967). Written in 1927, Hughes's poem belongs to a category that he described as the gospel song — an "offshoot of the spiritual" that, unlike the spiritual, was not "an anonymous, purely folk thing" but was "so near the folk style" and "written by people who come right out of the folk" that it was "perhaps the last refuge of…uncontaminated negro folk music." The language of the poem reflects Hughes's (and others') belief that Blacks' speech was a pure and direct reflection of their character and identity, one that should not be altered to bring it into stylistic conformity with "proper" speech lest their character itself be misrepresented. Like many of Hughes's other works, the poem gives voice to the imagination of simple, humble, presumably uneducated Blacks — in this case, a vision of the spirit or soul of someone who has been recently buried and is going to meet Christ. And typically for Hughes, the lyric articulates complex concepts in this simple imagination — the soul travels across time and space, "flyin' o' de town," "flyin' to the stars an' moon"; it addresses Christ directly ("God, I's comin' soon. O Jesus!"); and Christ addresses it directly ("Don't be 'fraid 'cause you ain't dead"). Most importantly, the soul's traversing of this spiritual salvation is also physical: at the beginning the lyric persona's body has been "put in the ground," but at the end, "in the sweet o' ma Lord's sight," the persona is no longer covered by the earth, but "clean an' bright" — a phrase that Hughes repeats three times (ll. 11, 13, and 14).

Price's setting of this poem honors the deliberate stylistic distance Hughes created between his "gospel songs" and spirituals, which in his view had been "concertized," "over-arranged," and "changed about a great deal." It is a consciously simple, humble song. Just as Hughes's poem treats the essentially spiritual phenomenon of divine judgment and salvation as a physical phenomenon, Price musically symbolizes the physical death of the body in the stereotypical key of death, D minor, in the lower registers, conspicuously emphasizing stark, open sonorities at the outset. This musical symbolism of the speaker's earthly state tonally cohabitates with the spiritual realm of radiant F major, usually in upper registers — yet D is always prominent in the F-major passages, and the soul's ascent from the ground where the body is buried to the realm of the stars and moon, where Lord Jesus abides, is musically painted in the melody's ascents to F2 (flyin', heaben) and A2 (for the crown on Jesus' head). Price depicts Jesus' declaration that "you ain't dead" as an apparent realization or turning point for the poet's spirit: the voice falls silent for four bars, and from this point on D and F, upper and lower registers coexist in Price's setting. In the final bars the stark, barren character of the opening D is gone; instead, the accompaniment ascends once more to the uppermost A even as the voice settles back into its lower tessitura, creating an air of peace and resolution that embraces heaven and earth, human and divine, the lowly simple man and the exalted and crowned Lord Jesus alike.

— John Michael Cooper


excerpt by Justin Hopkins, voice; Jeanne-Minette Cilliers, piano