Paul Laurence Dunbar

Happy New Year, treble choir enthusiasts! Have you ever programmed a concert around the texts of a single poet? Today’s post is centered around some treble choir settings of the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was an American writer. He was one of the first influential Black poets in American literature and to gain international recognition. His first poems were published in a Dayton newspaper when he was only sixteen years old. He wrote poems, short stories, novels, and the lyrics for the first all African American musical on Broadway, In Dahomey, with music by Will Marion Cook. Dunbar used both dialect and standard English in writing his poems. In his short life, he published a dozen poetry books. 

Dunbar’s poetry both conveyed African American life of the time and more conventional poetry, earning him a place as one of the first prominent Black sonnet writers. Civil Rights activist James Weldon Johnson (who wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing”), said the following about his friend in the preface of his Book of American Poetry:

Paul Laurence Dunbar stands out as the first poet from the Negro race in the United States to show a combined mastery over poetic material and poetic technique, to reveal innate literary distinction in what he wrote, and to maintain a high level of performance. He was the first to rise to a height from which he could take a perspective view of his own race. He was the first to see objectively its humor, its superstitions, its short-comings; the first to feel sympathetically its heart-wounds, its yearnings, its aspirations, and to voice them all in a purely literary form.

Rollo Dilworth – Love Is a Star

Publisher: Hal Leonard
Duration: 4’
Text: “Love Is a Star” 

This beautiful gospel-esque arrangement (although the text is secular) by Rollo Dilworth is appropriate for younger singers. It has a tuneful melody, compound meter, and some cool harmonies and chromaticism.

Patti Drennan – A Merry Autumn

Publisher: BriLee Music
Duration: 2’
Text: “Merry Autumn” from Lyrics of Lowly Life

This lovely piece by Patti Drennan is also appropriate for younger singers. It is mostly homophonic with imitative moments, upbeat and dancelike, and has a piano part reminiscent of a gigue.

Donna Gartman Schultz – Good Night, My Love

Publisher: Pavane
Duration: 5’
Text: “Good-Night” from Lyrics of Lowly Life

Donna Gartman Schultz’s setting is a gentle lullaby with a flowing piano part. This is an intermediate-advanced piece good for high school, community, and college treble choirs. It has imitation, dissonant harmonies, and trickier modulations. It also requires some stamina to sing!

Dale Trumbore – Ring Out, Ye Bells!

Publisher: Graphite
Duration: 3’30” 
Text: “Christmas Carol” 

This setting by Dale Trumbore is a 2-part arrangement for SA choir and was originally written for SATB choir. Don’t let its apparent simplicity on the page fool you! The harmonies are not too challenging, but the melody is a little rangy, giving the opportunity to work on navigating evenness through the voice. The piece is mostly homophonic with a more imitative middle section, and the two-against-three rhythms might pose a challenge.

Marques Garrett – Invitation to Love

Publisher: Santa Barbara
Duration: 5’ 
Text: “Invitation to Love” from Lyrics of Lowly Life

The haunting opening of Marques Garrett’s setting of Invitation to Love gives way to a hopeful middle section and an aleatoric ending. This piece is a great way to show off the range and color of treble voices and is for more advanced choirs.

Let me know if you have ever performed or decide to program any of these pieces! 

Additional Resources

Dr. Hana J. Cai is a conductor, pianist, and singer based in Ithaca, NY.  She is currently on faculty at Ithaca College where she conducts the Ithaca College Chorus and Treble Chorale. 

If you would like to contribute to the blog with any questions or wisdom or pieces to share, I’d love to hear from you!  Feel free to write to me at