• John Michael Cooper

Kindred Spirits, Part 2: A Bonds-Millay Song Cycle

[I'm currently writing a review for this space of what I consider the most important song album of our century: composer Lori Laitman's "Are Women People?" As a warm up to that review, which is really about the poet --> poem --> composer --> song phenomenon, I thought I'd share the following, which was published on the Women's Song Forum earlier this year. As you'll see, Margaret Bonds's song cycle has a strong claim to an enduring place in the annals of feminist song.]

In Part 1 of this post I proposed that despite the color line that separated them in life and their receptions, Margaret Bonds (1913-72) and Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) were kindred spirits in feminist song. Here, I focus on a song cycle by Bonds that takes Millay’s rewriting of the tale of the “woman in love” one step further. I suggest that Bonds used the concept and narrative example of Millay’s 1931 sonnet sequence Fatal Interview to create a song cycle all her own, one that musically and poetically affirms the autonomy of Woman’s self and depicts the rebirth of female identity.

On Millay’s Fatal Interview

Millay’s Fatal Interview (1931) is a sequence of fifty-two sonnets whose title alludes to John Donne’s Elegy XVI: On His Mistris (“By our first strange and fatall interview, / By all desires which thereof did ensue”). That allusion is at least somewhat autobiographical, inspired by Millay’s affair with poet George Dillon (1906-1968). The sequence’s first and last sonnets are a frame that likens Millay’s poetic characters to Selene and Endymion in Greek mythology. The intervening fifty sonnets chronicle the awakening and demise of a romantic relationship – the transformation of passionate, intensely sexual love into lasting anguish because of the lover’s unresponsiveness. Ultimately, the poet realizes that however much she might crave his love, she does not need it. She moves on by affirming her own self and self-worth: he is mortal, and if he, “When faint at heart or fallen on hungry days, / Or full of griefs and little if at all,” should find himself “From them distracted by delights or praise,” then he should take pride in the knowledge that she, a goddess, once loved him: “Indeed I think this memory, even then, / Must raise you high among the run of men.”

Although Fatal Interview has never acquired the iconic stature of The Harp Weaver and Other Poems and some criticized Millay for writing love poems in a time of economic crisis and widespread despair, even those voices admitted its greatness. (For example, the redoubtable Harriet Monroe [1860-1936] declared it “a work of perfect art,” “one of the finest love-sequences in the language,” an “imperishable treasure” [220-21]).

On Bonds’s Four Songs

Out of this concept, Margaret Bonds created a song cycle all her own. According to Bonds’s autograph inventory on the cover sheet that now houses the cycle’s first song (above), it begins with “Even in the Moment of Our Earliest Kiss” from Fatal Interview (XLVI), proceeds to “Feast (from The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems, 1923), returns to Fatal Interview for the bold “I Know My Mind and I Have Made My Choice” (XLV), and closes on a note both sensual and melancholy with “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed” (also from The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems). The parallels to Fatal Interview are striking. In both, the female protagonist begins by reflecting sensually on her lover even as she concedes that she knew from the start that the relationship could not last. In both, initially intense sexuality turns to frustration born of the lover’s unresponsiveness and awareness of the relationship’s inevitable demise. In both, that recognition leads the lyric persona to reclaim her own identity independent of any lover. In both, the cycle closes with melancholy expressed through imagery of desolation. And finally, both are frame stories: in Millay’s sequence, the frame is the myth of Selene and Endymion, and in Bonds’s cycle it is the intimate and powerfully sexual image of the kiss (“our earliest kiss” in the first song; “what lips my lips have kissed” in the last).

Bonds’s music is a masterfully insightful musical interpretation of Millay’s texts – at turns agitated, lyrical, angry, haunted, triumphant, sensual. The first song, “Even in the Moment of Our Earliest Kiss” (designated à volonté [willfully]), translates the poem’s searching conflictedness into searching chromatic ascents and deeply unsettled harmonies: though nominally in A minor, it contains not a single cadence in that key. The second song, “Feast,” is unrelentingly dissonant, almost atonal, as the persona realizes that satisfaction is not to be hers – that, for her, thirst is more satisfying than any “wine” or “fruit” will ever be, and thus resolves: “Feed the grape and the bean / to the vintner and monger; / I will lie down lean / with my thirst and my hunger.” (Bonds emphasizes that dramatic assertion of the persona’s Self by setting the I in “I will lie down lean” as a high B natural, fortissimo, over furiously chromatic and agitated figures in the accompaniment.) In the third song she addresses her lover and declares that

I know my mind and I have made my choice;

Not from your temper does my doom depend;

Love me or love me not, you have no voice

In this, that is my portion to the end.

Here, the wandering harmonies are replaced by an assertive D minor, designated “baldamente con agitamento” (boldly, with agitation). And, this resolution accomplished, the final song turns to D major, “Andantino – tenerezza” (somewhat slowly – tenderness). Here the frustration, anger, and bitterness are gone; what’s left is the persona’s melancholy acceptance, and her embracing of her own, authentic identity, expressed in sinuous, graceful lines and exquisitely sensual beauty.

And there is one more thing – something that makes this cycle uniquely Bonds’s own: whereas Millay’s Fatal Interview ends with residual anger and disdain born of the affair’s demise, Bonds’s does not. Instead, Bonds’s music leaves those emotions behind, so that what negativity remains is vestigial only. This is evident in the evolution of the four songs’ harmonic language and the cycle’s tonal structure, where the opening A minor eventually resolves to a D-minor/D-major pair whose keys symbolize the protagonist’s victory in converting her hope for a lasting relationship into self-reliance and a rebirth of her female identity. The conclusion of the Four Songs is not cold, but embracing and accepting, warm and beautiful. The last song’s closing bars offer a moment of magic born of the freedom that comes with this acceptance; for as the poet declares that “I only know that summer sang in me / A little while, that in me sings no more” the voice soars upward by from d1 to b flat2 before finally resolving to a sustained high Aa glimpse, perhaps, of the expansive and magical beauty that comes with the rebirth of female identity freely claimed.

Bonds’s six settings of poems by Millay are all published in my own source-critical edition by Hildegard Publishing Company, and the four songs discussed in this post are also available (albeit not presented as a cycle) in another edition by Louise Toppin. Dana Zenobi has performed the Four Songs separately, but here is the world-premiere performance of the Four Songs as a cycle, given by soprano Katerina Burton with pianist Michelle Papenfuss.

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