To Be Loved Less Than a Flower: “Hyacinth” by Margaret Bonds & Edna St. Vincent Millay

To Be Loved Less Than a Flower: “Hyacinth” by Margaret Bonds & Edna St. Vincent Millay

I first encountered Edna St. Vincent Millay as the ghost of a young poet, who had attempted to commit suicide by jumping from a window, only to land on a bush below and survive. I was sixteen-years old, touring the Vassar College campus with my mother. As our tour guide led us across the Quad, I distinctly remember her referring to various buildings and reciting facts about the college’s illustrious alumni.

“The story goes that the famous poet Edna St. Vincent Millay survived after jumping from one of these windows…” I knew next to nothing about Millay, and I had never read her poetry, but I felt a sense of relief that a life had not been cut tragically short. After being informed by our tour guide that Millay went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, it seemed that this bush, so fortuitously growing under a dorm window, had directly contributed to our appreciation of Millay’s literary genius.

Building on the Vassar College campus, ca. 1910-1929
Hum Images / Alamy

It would take, however, another decade to discover that Millay never actually jumped. [1] The legend was false, although her student years at Vassar, which she attended from 1913 to 1917, were tumultuous. Millay had a penchant for challenging authority, a characteristic that would later inform both her writing and social activism. She often defied the college’s rules, and by her senior year, it would take a petition signed by 120 faculty members to secure her degree after a suspension. [2]

As I later became a fellow Vassar alum myself, I felt a certain kinship with Millay and the false legend of her suicide attempt. It was yet another reminder that, even in historic spaces devoted to women’s education, expressions of female creativity and brilliance could be mythologized as cautionary tales, as ever unstable and dangerous.

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950)

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1933)
Carl Van Vechten / Van Vechten Collection at the Library of Congress

Born in Maine, Millay would become one of the most influential American poets of the first half of the twentieth century. Throughout her life, she wrote lyric poetry, particularly sonnets, plays, and editorials. In 1917, she moved to Greenwich Village, where she published Renascence and Other Poems and became a fixture on the avant-garde literary scene.

After becoming the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1923 with Ballad of the Harp-Weaver, Millay was hailed as an embodiment of the Roaring Twenties’ “New Woman” feminist aesthetic. In 1925, the Metropolitan Opera commissioned Millay to write the libretto for composer Deems Taylor’s 1927 opera The King’s Henchman, which became one of the most popular American operas of its day.

Millay used her poetry as a means of exploring her sexuality; she was openly bisexual. In her poetry, Millay also expressed her political beliefs, as in her defense of Sacco and Vanzetti in her 1927 poem “Justice Denied in Massachusetts” and her anti-fascist stance towards Nazism with her 1942 poem “The Murder of Lidice” about the Nazi obliteration of a Czech village in Bohemia. From the 1920s until the end of her career, Millay embarked on popular national reading tours of her poetry. Listen below to Millay’s reading of sonnets from Fatal Interview, recorded in 1941.

Millay reads “This Beast That Rends Me,” “Not in a Silver Casket,” “Love is Not All,” “Sorrowful Dreams,” and “Oh, Sleep Forever” from Fatal Interview

In my early twenties, I had rediscovered Millay through her sonnets, and I was struck by the poet’s witty and honest representations of a female self and her desires. As my career veered towards classical music and the song repertoire of women composers, I continually searched for musical settings of Millay’s poetry.

In 2020, I learned that Hildegard Publishing Company had released Six Songs on Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay by American composer Margaret Allison Bonds. This volume, edited by Bonds scholar John Michael Cooper, presents transcriptions of the composer’s Edna St. Vincent Millay songs, including Four Songs, “Women Have Loved Before as I Love Now,” and “Hyacinth.” Originally housed at the libraries of Yale and Georgetown Universities as unpublished manuscripts, these songs were made available to the public for the first time in Cooper’s edition.

From my previous encounters with Bonds’ powerful arrangements of spirituals and her song settings of the work of Harlem Renaissance titans Langston Hughes (1901-1967) and Countee Cullen (1903-1946), I knew that the combined feminist visions of these two women artists via song would be electric.

MARGARET ALLISON BONDS (1913-1972)

Bonds was a concert pianist, pedagogue, and innovative composer in song, choral, orchestral, chamber, and music theatre genres, who defied racist and gendered prejudice throughout her career. In her dissertation on Bonds’ life and solo vocal repertoire, Alethea N. Kilgore writes that the composer deftly employed “a quintessentially American collage of elements drawn from African American musical styles, European art song, popular music, and jazz.” [3]

Bonds was born into an influential Black family in Chicago; her mother, Estella C. Bonds (1882-1957) was an organist, pianist, and teacher at the Coleridge-Taylor School of Music. Bonds’ father, Dr. Monroe Alpheus Majors (1864-1960) was a doctor, journalist, and civil rights activist, who early in his career became the first African American physician licensed to practice medicine in California.

Portrait of Margaret Bonds (date unknown)
Carl Van Vechten / Van Vechten Collection at the Library of Congress

From a young age, Bonds received an extensive, formal music education in piano and composition. Bonds’ mother Estella cultivated a salon in their home, attended by prominent Black composers, musicians, artists, and writers. Bonds was deeply influenced by this vibrant cultural environment, grounded in the intellect, talent, and activism of the Chicago Black community. It was at a salon gathering where Bonds would meet and later study with composer Florence Beatrice Price (1888-1953), who lived for a period of time in the Bonds’ home.

From 1929 to 1934, Bonds attended Northwestern University, where she would earn both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in piano and composition. At Northwestern, Bonds found herself in an overtly racist and segregated community for the first time; Black students could not live on campus, and less than a third of the students were women. During the isolation of her college years, Bonds discovered Langston Hughes’ poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1921), and she credited Hughes’ depiction of the ancient wisdom of Black culture as a guiding light. [4] Bonds would later set “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” as an art song in 1941.

“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1941) by Margaret Bonds
Poetry by Langston Hughes
Hannah Jones, mezzo-soprano & Marco Rizzello, piano
Manhattan School of Music: 2023 Black History Month Concert

Bonds persisted in developing her musical talents, and in 1932, she won the Rodman Wanamaker Prize Competition for her art song “Sea Ghost.” In 1933, at twenty years of age, Bonds premiered as the first Black soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Throughout her career, she would also break barriers as the first Black woman soloist to perform with the Chicago Women’s Symphony, the WNYC Orchestra, and the Scranton Philharmonic Orchestra.

After moving to New York City to study piano and composition at the Julliard School of Music, Bonds met Langston Hughes for the first time. Their creative partnership and friendship would last for four decades, producing over fifty songs, including the cycles Songs of the Seasons (1955) and Three Dream Portraits (1959), as well as choral works, and music theater works.

Throughout her career, Bonds consistently employed her compositions as a means of exploring the Black experience in America, as well as highlighting issues of racial and gender inequality. Bonds’ activism is no more apparent than in her solo vocal repertoire, comprised of approximately one hundred songs in a variety of styles, including arrangements of spirituals, art songs, musical theater songs, and jazz songs. As a prolific arranger of African American spirituals, Bonds collaborated with eminent American soprano Leontyne Price (b. 1927) throughout the 1950s and ’60s. Price’s 1962 LP Swing Low, Sweet Chariot with Bonds’ “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” became one of the soprano’s most popular recordings. [5]

Bonds was also a prominent pedagogue in Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles; her studio produced notable musicians, such as jazz pianist and composer Gerald Cook (1920-2006) and composer Ned Rorem (1923-2022). While Bonds excelled as a composer of classical concert music in both large and small-scale forms, she also composed for other genres, such as radio, television, film, and for notable jazz musicians Cab Calloway, Glen Miller, Louis Armstrong, Woody Herman, and Nina Simone. [6]

Three Dream Portraits (1959) by Margaret Bonds
Poetry by Langston Hughes
Dashon Burton, bass-baritone & Stefano Flavoni, piano
Lakes Area Music Festival 2020
“He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” with soprano Leontyne Price
Arranged by Margaret Bonds; Recorded in 1961

For more information on Bonds’ compositions, including a list of her works, score locations, and online recordings, check out the Boulanger Initiative Database.

“Hyacinth” (1961)

It is important to note that the lives and career trajectories of Bonds, a Black composer and pianist, and Millay, a white poet and playwright, were intrinsically shaped by the racism that divided twentieth-century American society; the two artists seemingly never met. [7] John Michael Cooper nonetheless argues that both women shared a commitment to their art as a means of creating a more equitable world. For Cooper, Bonds’ choice to set Millay’s words may have been an artistic marriage of “kindred spirits,” and I couldn’t agree more. [8] By considering Bonds’ setting of Millay’s “Hyacinth,” we encounter an unflinching intersectional feminist portrait of the ever-shifting dynamics between gender, power, and love.

Published in Millay’s 1923 The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems, “Hyacinth” sketches the contours of an unequal bond, in which a man cares more for his hyacinth flowers than the poem’s protagonist. At night, he diligently keeps awake to ward off field mice from chewing on his hyacinth bulbs, while neglecting the well-being of the person lying beside him.

Hyacinth

from The Harp Weaver and Other Poems (1923)
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I am in love with him to whom a hyacinth is dearer
 Than I shall ever be dear.
 On nights when the field-mice are abroad he cannot
    sleep:
 He hears their narrow teeth at the bulbs of his
    hyacinths.
 But the gnawing at my heart he does not hear.

Although Bonds set Millay’s “Hyacinth” in 1961, almost four decades after its initial publication as a poem, both artists faced a society grappling with questions of inclusion and belonging. In 1923, many American women, though not all, had won the right to vote only three years prior with the 1920 ratification of the Nineteenth-Amendment. In 1961, the passage of the 1963 Equal Pay Act and the 1964 Civil Rights Act were on the horizon. Against the backdrop of these sweeping social justice movements, the inter-personal dynamics of “Hyacinth” reveal a similar power struggle, a fight for visibility in a world where a woman is less valued than a man’s prized flower.  

“Jim Crow Must Go” (date unknown)
National Park Service

Soar, eat ether, see what has never been seen; depart, be lost,
But climb.


“ON THOUGHT IN HARNESS,” FROM COLLECTED POEMS EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY (1956)

Bonds illustrates the painful absurdity of this proposition through vivid melodic motives and text painting. In her introduction, descending chromatic arpeggiations set an uneasy mood, akin to the song’s protagonist tossing and turning at night with mounting frustrations about her relationship. As we hear the gnawing teeth of the field mice in the darkness, Bonds hushes the melody to a sinister pianissimo, again with an accompaniment of off-kilter chromatic arpeggiations. To embody the protagonist’s ultimate desperation at being dismissed by their partner, Bonds writes a forte climax with “He hears their narrow teeth at the bulbs of his hyacinths,” and the melody transforms into a heavily accented, half-step lament. Listen below to my performance of “Hyacinth” with Michael Sheppard (piano) on The Shining Place, filmed in February 2022.

For me, “Hyacinth” concludes with a dose of ambiguity. In the song’s final phrases, Bonds invites the performer to define their final emotional intent for the audience. “But the gnawing at my heart he does not hear” is repeated three times, each growing softer and softer. Is this morendo (dying out) effect a sign of resignation, cynicism, or the protagonist’s ultimate resolve to end a dysfunctional relationship? The composer and poet do not confirm or deny her fate. As both Bonds and Millay challenged socio-cultural prejudice throughout their lives and careers, we are left to hope that the protagonist of “Hyacinth” may shape a future in which she is more valued as a human being.

Wild Hyacinths (1905) by Alfred Heaton Cooper (1863-1929)
Alamy

To purchase Six Songs on Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay by Margaret Bonds for voice and piano, edited by John Michael Cooper, check out Hildegard Publishing Company’s editions for high voice and medium voice


Notes

  1. “Vassar Myths & Legends,” Vassar Encyclopedia.
  2. “Distinguished Alumni: Edna St. Vincent Millay,” Vassar Encyclopedia.
  3. Alethea N. Kilgore, “The Life and Solo Vocal Works of Margaret Allison Bonds (1913-1972),” 1.
  4. Randye Jones, “Margaret Bonds (1913-1972),” Afrocentric Voices in Classical Music.
  5. Anna Celenza, “Margaret Bonds: Composer and Activist.”
  6. Brian Lauritzen, “Open Ears: The Endlessly Unfolding Story of Margaret Bonds.”
  7. John Michael Cooper, “Kindred Spirits: Margaret Bonds and Edna St. Vincent Millay, Part 1.”
  8. Cooper, “Kindred Spirits.”

Bibliography

  1. Celenza, Anna. “Margaret Bonds: Composer and Activist.” Georgetown University Library. https://library.georgetown.edu/exhibition/margaret-bonds-composer-and-activist.
  2. Cooper, John Michael. “Kindred Spirits: Margaret Bonds and Edna St. Vincent Millay, Part 1.” Women’s Song Forum. February 27, 2021. https://www.womensongforum.org/2021/02/27/kindred-spirits-margaret-bonds-and-edna-st-vincent-millay-part-1/.
  3. “Edna St. Vincent Millay.” Vassar Encyclopedia. https://vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu/distinguished-alumni/edna-st-vincent-millay/.
  4. “Edna St. Vincent Millay.” Poetry Foundation. 2023. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/edna-st-vincent-millay
  5. Jones, Randye. “Margaret Bonds (1913-1972).” Afrocentric Voices in Classical Music. December 3, 2022. http://www.afrovoices.com/wp/margaret-bonds-biography.
  6. Kilgore, Alethea N. “The Life and Solo Vocal Works of Margaret Allison Bonds (1913-1972).” PhD Thesis, Florida State University College of Music, 2013. Florida State University Libraries.
  7. Lauritzen, Brian. “Open Ears: The Endlessly Unfolding Story of Margaret Bonds.” Classical California KUSC. April 30, 2018. https://www.kusc.org/culture/staff-blog/open-ears/open-ears-margaret-bonds/.
  8. Millay, Edna St. Vincent. “Hyacinth.” From The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems. New York and London: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1923.
  9. Millay, Edna St. Vincent. “On Thought in Harness.” From Collected Poems Edna St. Vincent Millay. Edited by Norma Millay. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1956.

AMOR statue by Robert Indiana at the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden

Research Internship with the Boulanger Initiative

Research Internship with the Boulanger Initiative

Since summer 2023, I have been working with the Boulanger Initiative (BI), a Washington DC-based organization that advocates for the music of women and gender-marginalized composers, as a Senior Research Intern. My work focuses on updating the Boulanger Initiative Database, which contains 8,000 works by over 1,200 composers, writing posts for BI’s blog, and collaborating on educational supplemental materials.

Image: Illustration of composers Nadi and Lilli Boulanger | Boulanger Initiative