Music and Texts of Gary Bachlund


We Wear the Mask - (2009)    

Paul Laurence Dunbar

for medium voice and piano


We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,--
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!

[ 4 pages, circa 2' 20" ]

Paul Laurence Dunbar


The text was published professionally in Dodd, Mead and Company's 1896 edition of Lyrics of Low Life, though it was privately published a year earlier in another of Dunbar's collections, Majors and Minors. The sentiment behind the text explains why some of Dunbar's other poetry depicting plantation life as he imagined or heard of it as somewhat idyllic in its images. Yet, there is another hidden truth as one may see in his text, A Banjo Song, and that is that one takes from life the small and simple pleasures which one may. This, while one may read into the poem something of the black experience of Dunbar's America, it is also an instruction to others with other lives in other times. A worthy lesson.



The major-minor triad speaks musically of an American genre of chord forms which echo the blues harmonies and yet this setting is neither a blues form nor jazzy per se. Rather it is an aggressive 6/8 with slight syncopations in which the vocal line lies "around" G minor, though this key signature is absent and indeed would be extraneous to the setting itself.



The center section between two verses drifts away for a moment from a nominal minor tonic to C major, the major seven chord in inversion and in wide spacing around the vocal line. Yet the vocal line could as easily have remained accompanied by the minor tonic in a different reading.



The score for We Wear the Mask is available as a free PDF download, though any major commercial performance or recording of the work is prohibited without prior arrangement with the composer. Click on the graphic below for this piano-vocal score.


We Wear the Mask