James Lee III was born in St. Joseph, Michigan, on November 26, 1975, and lives in Edgewood, Maryland. He composed Freedom’s Genuine Dawn in collaboration with the spoken-word artist Wordsmith in 2021. The piece was co-commissioned by 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. The BSO commission is through the generous support of the New Works Fund established by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency. The world premiere of Freedom’s Genuine Dawn was given by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Robert Treviño, conductor, with Wordsmith as narrator, on January 20, 2022, in Baltimore. This is the first Boston Symphony Orchestra performance.
The score of Freedom’s Genuine Dawn calls for narrator with 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion (variously playing whip, chains, wind chimes, tubular bells, cymbals, tam-tam, crotales, temple blocks, tambourine, snare drum, tom-toms, and bass drum), and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). Duration is about 18 minutes.
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 was raised as a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which strongly shaped his education, life, and music. He attended high school at Andrews Academy, a Seventh-day Adventist school in Berrion Springs, Michigan, and went on to attend the affiliated Andrews University. Via his piano lessons and the classical music programming of the Andrews radio station, Lee became fascinated with music of dense activity and harmonic richness—works of Beethoven, Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes. As his awareness of repertoire grew, he gravitated toward music with strong sociological and geographical orientation, work with a direct connection to the his life and identity. He encountered the piano music of William Grant Still (1895-1978), whose Symphony No. 1, Afro-American, was the first symphony by an African American to be performed by a major U.S. orchestra. The Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera’s early, South American folk music-influenced music was also a draw, especially because of its rhythmic vitality.
After Andrews University, Lee earned a degree in piano performance as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. As a college senior he applied to graduate school, ultimately earning his doctorate from the University of Michigan. It was in summer 2002, during his time at the University of Michigan, that he was a Composition Fellow of the BSO’s Tanglewood Music Center. He 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’s The Appointed Time, for string quartet, and a choral setting of Psalm 61 were given their premieres at Tanglewood. Following his graduation from Michigan, Lee joined the faculty of Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, where he is an associate professor.
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 Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula, which draws on his Seventh-day Adventist upbringing, was a breakthrough orchestral work. A co-commission from the Sphinx Organization and seven orchestras, that colorful, dynamic piece has become his most frequently performed symphonic work. It was performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Andris Nelsons’ direction in October 2019. Lee’s chamber music has also been featured in concerts by members of the BSO.
Lee’s recent successes include his Visions of Cahokia, which was premiered in January 2023 by the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra under Stéphane Denève, who repeated the work with the New World Symphony this month. His piano concerto Shades of Unbroken Dreams will be premiered by soloist Alexandra Dariescu and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Fabien Gabel conducting, next month, and Dariescu will repeat the piece for its UK premiere with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra later in November.
The commission that became Freedom’s Genuine Dawn originated with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, in Lee’s adoptive city. In composing the piece, he collaborated with spoken word and recording artist Wordsmith (né Anthony Parker, b.1980), a Morgan State alumnus who had been appointed to the position of artistic partner with the Baltimore Symphony in September 2020. They first worked together on Destined Words, a piece commissioned by the orchestra in celebration of Marin Alsop’s tenure as music director there and also in recognition of the first federally recognized Juneteenth holiday in 2021. The Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Rochester Philharmonic were brought in as partners to commission Freedom’s Genuine Dawn. The Baltimore Symphony’s January 2022 premiere was followed by the Rochester Philharmonic’s performances in February 2023. (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 component. Virtually all of his works are based on clearly defined pictorial and narrative elements—his music is, as music historians would say, “program music,” like the symphonic poems of Richard Strauss or Franz Liszt. Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula, a purely orchestral work, is a case in point, as are his Niiji Memories flute concerto and his orchestral Visions of Cahokia, both inspired by Native American history. 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 the message more explicit, highlighting the historical and ongoing struggle of Black Americans for equity within society.
Lee’s reference in his own comments on his piece (below) to Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait is instructive. Frederick Douglass, as is well known, was a frequent critic of Abraham Lincoln’s policies, urging him to go further in ending slavery and seeking equal rights for all. In Copland’s piece, Lincoln’s words are framed by details from his life. Wordsmith creates a similar framework for Douglass’s words from his 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the 4th of July,” and that idea of frame and context is mirrored in the eclecticism of Lee’s music. One might 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.
In his music, Lee balances passages in which the orchestra is the foreground with those giving space to the narrator, embedded in atmospheric textures. Little allusions in the form of melodic fragments comment on and add color to the text. Percussion provides even more specific atmosphere: the militaristic sound of the snare drum and the ominous rumble of the bass drum point the way to the orchestra’s dark accompaniment to Douglass’s description of slaves’ punishments. The climactic moment is the key point of the speech: “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” (Note the “your,” in the context of an address to a Rochester, New York, audience in 1852.) The music here is at its sparsest, the better to allow that damning question to resonate, a solo trombone’s entreaty echoing musically the narrator’s emotion. The orchestra responds to this narrative peak in an intense, extended passage before subsiding to allow a window for Douglass’s conclusion, hopeful but tinged with warning. That hope, and that warning, are reflected in the music’s final, powerful surge.
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