Program Notes

“Especially do I believe in the Negro Race; In the beauty of its genius, the sweetness of its soul.”
—W.E.B. Du Bois Credo, as set by Margaret Bonds
“Everything in the Black experience as it was being created was born and fostered and incubated through music—traditions that come from Africa and some that were natively born out of the grief that happened in the American South during slavery. Once slavery was finally abolished in the 19th century, there was a decision to keep all of this music born out of pain, but also an idea that maybe we should get rid of it, to forget all the pain and horror that happened. But there was something unusual about these melodies, about the depth of this music that we created, and so we decided to keep it. Not only did we keep it, but it became the backbone of the Black American contribution to culture in America. It became the foundation of honestly most pop music that you hear now. It also influenced and filtered into classical music as well. But the root of all of that is this collection of all the songs that we’ve known through tradition, that have come up, been created, cataloged, and categorized as African American spirituals.”
—Reginald Mobley, countertenor, Gramophone Classical Music Podcast

As part of Coro Allegro’s season-long exploration of identity, today’s program celebrates the genius of Black American composers, in concert with four acclaimed Black guest artists from the LGBTQ+ and allied communities, Reginald Mobley, Breanna Sinclairė, Philip Lima, and David Coleman.

At the heart of the program are African American spirituals, and the gospel and art song they inspired, which form the backbone and foundation, as Reginald Mobley observes, of so much of American music. We begin and end with the book ends of two classical works written by leading Black American composers during the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century, William Grant Still’s A Psalm for the Living (1954) and Margaret Bonds’ Credo (1965-7).

William Grant Still (1895–1978), known as the "Dean of African American Composers," was ambivalent about this title. After all, as he said, ““Why, then, isn’t Aaron Copland called the ‘Dean of White Composers?” What is undeniable is that Still was a trailblazer. As a musician, Still played numerous instruments, many of them self-taught. He wrote and arranged music for W.C. Handy, "the father of the blues," for radio and television, including the theme songs for Perry Mason and Gunsmoke, and the theme song for the 1939 World's Fair (though he could only attend on days designated for Blacks only). He studied composition with Edgar Varese and George Chadwick at the New England Conservatory of Music. Still was the first African American composer to have a full-length piece performed by a major orchestra, the first to conduct a major U.S. symphony orchestra, the first to have an opera premiered by a major U.S. company, and the first to have an opera performed on television.

His music was championed by Howard Hanson, Leopold Stokowski, and George Szell, among others. Yet there were many occasions during his lifetime when the specter of racism reared its ugly head. When his Afro-American Symphony, based on the blues, premiered under Howard Hanson's direction to a standing ovation, reviewers came together to pan the work as Still was becoming too popular. Still wrote to a friend, how “keenly” he felt the challenge of composing given “those who are opposed to placing a colored man in any position of prominence.”

Still’s marriage ceremony to his second wife, the white poet Verna Arvey, had to be performed in Mexico because interracial marriages were illegal in California in 1939. They were married almost 40 years, until his death in 1978, and she became the lyricist for his vocal, choral and operatic works.

In A Psalm for the Living, Still and Arvey reimagine The Lord’s Prayer, in a more contemporary idiom that made a very bold statement for its day. It translates the familiar words, “Our Father Who Art in Heaven,” from a spiritual to an earthly plain, evoking God’s hand in the creation and beauties of the natural world, as well as the works of humanity. Ultimately, A Psalm for the Living is a praise song to “the love that reminds us all men are brothers.” The music is lush, warm and inviting, with harmonically rich choral writing alternating with chant-like sections, which finally build to a soaring climax.

Spirituals and art song

“Spirituals are the collection of songs that come out of slavery in America. Music became a way of processing sorrow and pain that came about because of the horror of slavery. There are songs of sorrow, songs of joy, there are work songs—these are all things that happened on fields and in plantations in America during that time. But there are also songs that we call “coded spirituals,” all the songs that were used to communicate not just feeling and emotion, but also the fact that there was a chance that the Underground Railroad was coming, that there was going to be an escape attempt.” —Reginald Mobley.

Hold On,” arranged by composer, conductor, and actor Jester Hairston (1901-2000), the grandson of slaves as well as a graduate of Tufts and Julliard, is an example of the multiple coded layers of meaning that can be found in spirituals. On a literal level, it could be a work song, or on a metaphorical level, a song of endurance and the resilience of the human spirit. With its echoes of Old Testament and Gospel stories, it could be an admonition to keep a steady moral course. Then again, its references to “doors all fast’ned and de winders pinned” could hint of a secret meeting. And as “The Plow” was another name for “The Big Dipper” that points to the North Star, its lyrics conceal a guide for slaves escaping north to the freedom of the Promised Land. A later version, “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize" became an anthem of the American Civil Rights movement.

If William Grant Still was known as the Dean of African American composers, Reginald Mobley tells the story of how Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949), the arranger of “Were You There,” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” became known as the Dean of the concert spiritual:

“He was a student at the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York, and was basically working his way through school by doing custodial work. At the time, there happened to be a guest lecturer there that was Antonín Dvořák. Dvořák one day heard Burleigh humming and singing spiritual tunes that he had grown up with, being the descendent of slaves. Dvořák was just shocked by what he heard, had him stop what he was doing, and sing fully what he had been mumbling. And he said, “Well, sing me more, sing me more.” They say that the sun set on Burleigh and Dvořák together, Dvořák listening to him sing every spiritual he knew until he was hoarse. Dvořák was completely inspired and said “This is the soul of American music.”

Because of this, Harry T. Burleigh became this figure, the source who brought the spiritual to the American consciousness. He arranged all of these spirituals, choral and solo arrangements, putting them into a music form that could be shared widely.

He also wrote his own non idiomatic songs, basically art songs, [one of which we perform today] – the song ‘Jean.’ We sourced something of Burleigh’s that wasn’t a spiritual that he preserved, because it is also important to recognize that Black Americans are not just pain and reflections of pain. We are also reflections of beauty and joy and just music and art and beauty for its own sake and you hear that in ‘Jean.’”

In addition to works by Hairston and Burleigh, we hear an arrangement of “My Lord What a Mornin’” by J. Rosamund Johnson (1873 – 1954), composer of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," the Black National Anthem, with his brother, James Weldon Johnson, and a contemporary arrangement of “Steal Away,” by conductor-composer Patrick Dupre Quigley and Reginald Mobley.

Gospel works

Horace Clarence Boyer, (1935 – 2009) who arranged “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” was one of the foremost scholars of African American gospel music, and a great friend of Coro Allegro and Artistic Director David Hodgkins. Back in 2004, we asked Dr. Boyer to reflect on how gospel emerged from spirituals:

"I think what most people don't know is that when Black people came to the United States, they were not Christian. They were Africans, and there are several very important traditional African religions, which like the Greeks and the Romans, had a pantheon of gods. This was what the slaves brought with them...Then we began to get newspaper articles and letters and journals that talked about this new kind of song that the slaves were singing, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Steal Away." And then we come up to the camp meetings in the 1800s, where slaves began to accent their singing with physical movement...In the 20th century, we pick up with the Pentecostal Church, which is actually based on the activities that happened 50 days after Christ rose (the “speaking in tongues”)...Now, the “speaking in tongues” needed to be inspired and generated by a certain kind of passionate song. (“Steal Away” would not generate it.) And that's where we began to get these joyous, dramatic and heartfelt gospel songs...This is a passionate, dramatic, rhythmic style, with roots in Pentecostal, sanctified, holiness music.”

If the spirituals known as Jubilee songs are the root of one branch of gospel music, Sorrow songs are the other. “Precious Lord” was written by Thomas A. Dorsey, (1899 – 1993) widely known as the father of Gospel, after he learned of the death of first his wife in childbirth and then his infant son. Its message of comfort in times of the deepest grief has sustained the Coro Allegro family and it became a theme song, sung for funerals, especially during the AIDS era, and in solidarity with affirming ministers from the Black church. “Lord, Make Me an Instrument,” by M. Roger Holland, II was introduced to us by our long-term collaborators Jonathan Berryman and the Heritage Chorale of New Haven, with whom Coro Allegro performed William Grant Still’s And They Lynched Him on a Tree in 1999 and in 2019. It is their theme song, and we sang it together as a virtual choir from the isolation of our homes during the lockdown. It is a joy to sing it together with you now. Guest artists, David Coleman, piano, shared how moving it was to him for us to be performing this work from the faith tradition in which he was raised:

“In our diverse world, there are unique experiences that seemingly combine elements from very different cultures. One of those experiences is found in the African-American Catholic worship experience, where we celebrate the traditional Roman Catholic mass often with gospel music, which comes from an American Protestant tradition. M. Roger Holland, II is a composer who celebrates Catholicism through the lens of Gospel music (or vice versa) and the result is a glorious amalgam that refocuses our traditional, recognised religious ideas and paints them on a new canvas with new colors. Holland's "Lord Make Me An Instrument" is a perfect example of this music giving us a new take on the beloved prayer of St. Francis of Assisi.”

Renowned Black composer, teacher, and activist, Margaret Allison Bonds (1913-1972), grew up in Chicago, where she studied at a young age with composer Florence Price and earned Bachelor and Masters degrees in Music from Northwestern University:

“I was in this prejudiced university, this terribly prejudiced place...I was looking in the basement of the Evanston Public Library where they had the poetry. I came in contact with this wonderful poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" and I’m sure it helped my feelings of security. Because in that poem he tells how great the black man is. And if I had any misgivings, which I would have to have – here you are in a setup where the restaurants won’t serve you and you’re going to college, you’re sacrificing, trying to get through school – and I know that poem helped save me.” —Margaret Bonds

In 1936, she met the poet himself, Langston Hughes (1901-1967), who became her friend and frequent collaborator, and invited her to New York to join the rich cultural Black community that had emerged during the Harlem Renaissance. Bonds went on to become one of the first Black composers to gain national recognition for her classical works, spiritual arrangements, and musical theatre works. Upon Hughes’ death in 1967, Bonds dedicated Credo to his memory (as well as that of Abbie Mitchel, the Black soprano, best known for her role in the premiere of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess).

Bonds took for her text the 1904 prose poem of the same title by W.E.B. Dubois (1869-1963), co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). As choral composer and scholar Rollo Dilworth notes, “Du Bois’ essay Credo, unlike the text from the not a simple profession of belief and faith in God; rather Credo is a profession of belief that all men, created by God, are equal...This was the composer’s final major work and it was completed at a time in which African American citizens struggled for political and social justice and equality.” In the face of that struggle, Credo powerfully affirms the common humanity of all nations, singing out with a faith, like Still’s, that ultimately all people, "black and brown and white, are brothers.”

Although a version with piano was performed during Bonds’ lifetime, the orchestral version was not premiered until after her death. We are proud to perform an edition published by Hildegard Publishing Company, whose President Elinor Armsby is one of Coro Allegro’s founding members. As its editor John Michael Cooper notes, “The text of the Credo, one of the most iconic texts of the Civil Rights movement before Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech” was printed on placards, displayed outside churches, carried in pockets, and recited by Black school children. As he notes, Bonds setting of it is “a masterpiece:”

“Even a cursory consideration will note Bonds's virtuosity in meeting the formidable challenges of setting prose (rather than poetry) to music, the work's wide emotional range, its ingenious orchestration, its alternately beautiful and powerful melodic language, and its rich harmonic palette…The work as a whole is a cycle in A minor, with central tonal axes of D minor and F major, and its large-scale cyclical unity is underscored by a rich network of thematic and motivic recollections. Taken together, these interrelationships confirm that the Credo is not merely an assemblage of professed beliefs, but rather a profoundly unified vision that reaffirms the beauty of Blackness and the sanctity of those professions’ overarching theme of racial justice.”

Enjoy the contrasts between the extraordinary lyricism of Bonds’ affirmations of Black genius and soul, and the truly fiendish tritones and dissonances which she assigns to his images of “the devil and his angels.” Despite the language of the past, this is prophetic writing that speaks to the conflicts of our own time, calling out not only racism, but also war and colonialism. Yet Du Bois and Bonds’ Credo ends with a call for patience with ignorance and prejudice and weakness, whose music echoes its opening affirmation of our shared humanity and longings for peace.

Program notes © Programming Consultant Yoshi Campbell with excerpts from Featured Artists Reginald Mobley and David Coleman. 

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