Northland. SATB choir, piano, 14′. Text by Claude McKay (1890-1948). Commissioned and premiered by the Santa Fe Desert Chorale, Joshua Habermann, Artistic Director, July 23rd, 2023.

Claude McKay (1890–1948)

The Santa Fe Desert Chorale asked me for a work addressing immigration, and this reminded me of a writer who has attracted my attention for a long time, Claude McKay. The Harlem Renaissance novelist and poet was born in a small village in Jamaica. He relates that he first encountered racism as a young man in the capital city of Kingston, and when he moved to the US to attend college in the South, open racism and institutional segregation both appalled him and fueled his writing. At 24 he moved to New York City; this is the period that produced the poems I’ve set here, although he didn’t put them to paper until after he had moved to England five years later. Each describes an aspect of the new immigrant’s American life, and perhaps he needed the years to intervene before he could make sense of his feelings.

In England and involved in communism, he was invited to Moscow, where he was lionized for his writings on race relations. But, seeing that he was being used as a pawn by the Soviet Union for its own purposes, his ardor soon cooled. After more than a decade in Europe, he returned to the US and became an American citizen in 1940. Continuing to write against unequal treatment of Blacks, he surprised both himself and his friends by his attraction to the Catholic Church, through its work with the poor. He was received into the Church in 1944. Battling ill health, four years later he succumbed to a heart attack, at age 58.

One of the major Black writers of the 20th century, Claude McKay wrote incisive poems, stories, and novels that inspired new generations of authors, including Langston Hughes and James Baldwin.

Northland is my setting of McKay’s wrestling with his immigrant experience. Loneliness, homesickness for the land of his birth, and anger at aspects of his new country are major themes, but in each poem an undeniable love of America works its way in. A 14-minute song cycle cannot summarize any author, but these four poems, in fairly chronological order from a small window of time, end in open-eyed acceptance of the new land.

I have always been attracted to clear, precise texts and imagery and the emotions they evoke. Emotions are often opposed, though, and music is uniquely suited to describe this, through the building blocks of its melodies, rhythms, and harmonies that are often held in tension. The piano in “The Tropics in New York” bubbles and the voices swoon as the ripe fruit represents home. But when it ends with “I turned aside and bowed my head and wept,” and the voices end in a simple unison as the poet weeps, the piano continues on its way, the fruit still gazing down on him from the shop window.

The best a composer can do, I believe, is to set words honestly and not to try to resolve conflicts, but rather to let them work as they do in the poem. “America,” with its shuddering echo of Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” epitomizes this. McKay’s powerful line, “I love this cultured hell,” is set almost too sweetly, as if his confession is being pulled out of him before he realizes it. He stoically envisions the country’s downfall, as if inwardly cheering and regretting at the same time.

“On Broadway” has an insistent blues bass piano line that both ignites and ignores the passionate singing. In the refrain, his rapture for Broadway is real—but it cannot erase his loneliness. The music of the last poem, “To One Coming North,” exhibits elements of the American fiddle tune, the parlor song, and the hymn, but is too off-kilter and lush to fit any of them neatly. The immigrant, while still in love with his homeland, has fallen in love with his new country, and, it seems to me, is getting used to singing in his new language.

1. The Tropics in New York (1920)
Bananas ripe and green, and ginger root
     Cocoa in pods and alligator pears,
And tangerines and mangoes and grape fruit,
     Fit for the highest prize at parish fairs,

Sat in the window, bringing memories
     of fruit-trees laden by low-singing rills,
And dewy dawns, and mystical skies
     In benediction over nun-like hills.

My eyes grow dim, and I could no more gaze;
     A wave of longing through my body swept,
And, hungry for the old, familiar ways
     I turned aside and bowed my head and wept.

2. America (1921)
Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate,
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet, as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

3. On Broadway (1922)
About me young careless feet
Linger along the garish street;
Above, a hundred shouting signs
Shed down their bright fantastic glow
Upon the merry crowd and lines
Of moving carriages below.
Oh wonderful is Broadway — only
My heart, my heart is lonely.

Desire naked, linked with Passion,
Goes trutting by in brazen fashion;
From playhouse, cabaret and inn
The rainbow lights of Broadway blaze
All gay without, all glad within;
As in a dream I stand and gaze
At Broadway, shining Broadway — only
My heart, my heart is lonely.

4. To One Coming North (1922)
At first you’ll joy to see the playful snow,
   Like white moths trembling on the tropic air,
Or waters of the hills that softly flow
   Gracefully falling down a shining stair.

And when the fields and streets are covered white
   And the wind-worried void is chilly, raw,
Or underneath a spell of heat and light
   The cheerless frozen spots begin to thaw,

Like me you’ll long for home, where birds’ glad song
   Means flowering lanes and leas and spaces dry,
And tender thoughts and feelings fine and strong,
   Beneath a vivid silver-flecked blue sky.

But oh! more than the changeless southern isles,
   When Spring has shed upon the earth her charm,
You’ll love the Northland wreathed in golden smiles
   By the miraculous sun turned glad and warm.