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Boston composer honors Phillis Wheatley with original music inspired by acclaimed poet's work

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A toddler sits before a sculpture of poet Phillis Wheatley. (Sharon Brody/WBUR)
A toddler sits before a sculpture of poet Phillis Wheatley. (Sharon Brody/WBUR)

The Boston Women's Memorial on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall in the Back Bay features three sculptures that pay tribute to women whose ideas and writing helped shape the city and the nation. One of the members of the trio is internationally-acclaimed poet, Phillis Wheatley.

In 1773, when she was about 20 years old, Wheatley became the first African-American to publish a volume of poetry. She achieved that milestone after growing up enslaved in the home of a prominent Boston family.

For last month's event marking the 20th anniversary of the memorial, the Black Boston-based composer and musician Mel Fitzhugh premiered a piece in honor of Wheatley.

"Imagination - Fancy: A Quasi Motet for Octet" is inspired by Wheatley's poem "On Imagination." Fitzhugh said she feels it's crucial to amplify Wheatley's story, and she hopes her music helps.

"I like to think that that is something that can combat the narratives that I grew up with, where Black women are worthless and dumb and only good for spitting out babies," Fitzhugh said. "Representation — seeing historical people, not just people today, who are Black women, who are brilliant and able to create such amazing things, I think is really, really important."

In her piece, Fitzhugh highlighted two key stanzas of Wheatley's poem:

Stanza 4:

Imagination! who can sing thy force?
Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?
Soaring through air to find the bright abode,
Th' empyreal palace of the thund'ring God,
We on thy pinions can surpass the wind,
And leave the rolling universe behind:
From star to star the mental optics rove,
Measure the skies, and range the realms above.
There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,
Or with new worlds amaze th' unbounded soul.

Stanza 7:

Fancy might now her silken pinions try
To rise from earth, and sweep th' expanse on high:
From Tithon's bed now might Aurora rise,
Her cheeks all glowing with celestial dies,
While a pure stream of light o'erflows the skies.
The monarch of the day I might behold,
And all the mountains tipt with radiant gold,
But I reluctant leave the pleasing views,
Which Fancy dresses to delight the Muse;
Winter austere forbids me to aspire,
And northern tempests damp the rising fire;
They chill the tides of Fancy's flowing sea,
Cease then, my song, cease the unequal lay.

In Fitzhugh’s composition, the higher voices sing of imagination and how it can transport a person to a better place, while the basses create tension — going deeper and lower and suggesting the poet cannot avail herself of such a path.

Fitzhugh said that with her piece, she aims to bring "attention to the plight of people like Phillis Wheatley, who are looking around at the world and looking at the ways in which the mind can be expanded. The mind can take you away from harsh realities."

(Courtesy Library of Congress)
(Courtesy Library of Congress)

But, Fitzhugh said, Wheatley laments "the unequal lay."

"In the end," Fitzhugh said, "you know that you're never going to escape them, because something or someone is going to quickly remind you of what reality is here and now, in your situation, in this moment."

Fitzhugh said these ideas resonate strongly with her around Juneteenth, the federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. Wheatley, of course, died decades before Juneteenth. But Fitzhugh said equality is an elusive goal, and she believes her composition honoring the poet can help serve as a reminder of how much work remains to be done.

This segment aired on June 18, 2023.


Sharon Brody News Anchor
Sharon Brody is the voice of WBUR's weekend mornings. On Saturdays and Sundays, she anchors the news for Weekend Edition and other popular programs.


Paul Connearney Weekend Managing Editor
Paul Connearney is the Weekend Managing Editor and Weekday Senior Writer who oversees WBUR's local news operations on weekends and contributes to WBUR's All Things Considered during the week.



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