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Freedom’s Genuine Dawn

Lee’s BSO co-commissioned Freedom’s Genuine Dawn for narrator and orchestra takes its text from Frederick Douglass’s 1852 abolitionist oration “What to the Slave Is the 4th of July?”

Composition and premiere: Lee composed Freedom’s Genuine Dawn in collaboration with the spoken-word artist Wordsmith in 2021 on a co-commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons, Music Director; the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop, Music Director, and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, Andreas Delfs, Music Director. Robert Treviño led the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in the world premiere with Wordsmith as narrator on January 20, 2022, in Baltimore. First BSO performance: Andris Nelsons conducting, with Thomas Warfield, narrator, October 21, 2023. First Tanglewood performance: July 28, 2024, also under Nelsons and with Warfield narrating. 

James Lee III grew up in the southwestern Michigan community of Benton Harbor, adjacent to lakeside St. Joseph, where he was born. Although his father’s side of the family was musical, Lee wasn’t overwhelmingly interested in music until he began piano lessons at age 12. It was a turning point: he progressed very quickly as a pianist for someone starting so late and also began to compose for piano. By the time he graduated high school he was assured enough to have written a piano concerto for himself to perform with his peers. He also sang in choirs throughout his youth. 

Lee’s upbringing in the Seventh-day Adventist Church has strongly shaped his education, music, and life, and for high school and his first college experience he attended Seventh-day Adventist institutions. At Andrews University, he gravitated toward music with strong sociological and geographical orientation, particularly by composers whose lives and work resonated with his own. These included the pioneering Black composer William Grant Still (1895-1978) and the Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera (1916-83), whose early, South American folk music-influenced music was also a draw because of its rhythmic vitality. 

After Andrews University, Lee earned a bachelor’s degree in piano performance and a doctorate in music composition from the University of Michigan. He was a 2002 Composition Fellow of the Tanglewood Music Center and two of his pieces were performed, his Psalm 61 and the string quartet Appointed Time. Lee counts among his teachers Michael Daugherty, William Bolcom, Bright Sheng, and Betsy Jolas; at Tanglewood he also worked with Osvaldo Golijov, Michael Gandolfi, Steven Mackey, and Kaija Saariaho. Lee joined the faculty of the HBCU Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, directly after earning his doctorate. 

Lee had already begun to establish a reputation before his Tanglewood summer; in 2001 his orchestral piece Papa Lapa was premiered by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Thomas Wilkins (now the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Germeshausen Youth and Family Concerts Conductor). His frequently performed Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula was performed by the BSO under Andris Nelsons’ direction in October 2019 at Symphony Hall, and his chamber music has also been featured in concerts by members of the BSO. Recent successes include Visions of Cahokia, premiered in January 2023 by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra under Stéphane Denève, who repeated the work with the New World Symphony. He wrote his piano concerto Shades of Unbroken Dreams for Alexandra Dariescu, who gave the premiere with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the UK premiere with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in fall 2023. Upcoming performances include the world premieres of his Clarinet Concerto by soloist Anthony McGill with the Kalamazoo (MI) Symphony Orchestra and a double piano concerto for the Naughton sisters with the Rochester Philharmonic, both in November 2024. 

The commission that became Freedom’s Genuine Dawn originated with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, in Lee’s adoptive city. He collaborated with spoken word and recording artist Wordsmith (né Anthony Parker, b.1980), a Morgan State alumnus and an artistic partner with the Baltimore Symphony. Their first project was Destined Words, commissioned by the orchestra to celebrate simultaneously the first federally recognized Juneteenth holiday and Marin Alsop’s tenure as music director. The Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Rochester Philharmonic were brought in as partners to commission Freedom’s Genuine Dawn. (It was in Rochester that Frederick Douglass delivered the oration from which most of the text of Freedom’s Genuine Dawn was taken.) 

James Lee III’s music has, in itself, an inherent dynamism and storytelling element. Virtually all of his works are programmatic, that is, based on clearly defined pictorial and narrative elements, like the tone poems of Richard Strauss or Franz Liszt. In his works for narrator and orchestra, which also include his Tethered Voices and Hold On, America, Hold On!, he felt the need to make more explicit the message of the historical and ongoing struggle for equity for Black Americans. Lee explicitly models aspects of Freedom’s Genuine Dawn on Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait. One can view Freedom’s Genuine Dawn as a sympathetic complement to Copland’s tribute to Lincoln, while at the same time—like Douglass to Lincoln—being a goad to the uncritical acceptance of a status quo in which deep inequalities still exist. The composer’s comments on his piece appear below. 


Composer and writer Robert Kirzinger is the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Director of Program Publications. 

James Lee III on his "Freedom’s Genuine Dawn"

FREEDOM’S GENUINE DAWN is inspired by the words of Frederick Douglass’ speech, “What to the Slave is the 4th of July.” In his speech it becomes apparent that Douglass did not feel that he or his people were included in the celebrations of independence. I used the pitches F-G-D in an ascending figure to represent “Freedom’s Genuine Dawn.” One of Douglass’s chief questions was, “Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?” In my title, I believe that it was Douglass’ desire that America would offer genuine freedom from all forms of slavery and that that day would not delay in becoming a reality.

Using both Wordsmith’s and Frederick Douglass’s texts, I sought to lead the listener on a journey that evokes sentiments of the narrative. The work begins with a brief informative introduction by the narrator. This is then followed by a grandiose accent in the strings and other parts of the orchestra. As the work continues, the music comments on aspects of Frederick Douglass’s childhood, and then musical suggestions of celebratory, playful, and patriotic natures ensue as Mr. Douglass praised the founding fathers. This praise abruptly ends with a harmony that suggests he begins to enumerate the sins of the nation. The following musical episodes of fluctuating emotions finally arrives at a since of hope and longing with the same pitches of F-G-D, but on a grander scale as the music ends and also hints at a prominent rhythm used by Aaron Copland in his work Lincoln Portrait.

—James Lee III