A COMPOSITIONAL COLLABORATION(?) BETWEEN MARGARET BONDS AND FLORENCE PRICE: “Sleep Song”

Have you ever been in a crowd or out in public and heard a voice that you immediately recognize, even if you haven’t yet seen the person speaking?

Most composers eventually develop a distinctive musical style — approaches to melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, and even choice of lyrics that collectively constitute their own voice, a source of musical utterance that, more often than not, is quickly recognizable and serves to identify them and communicate their ideas, their experiences, their hopes and loves and dreams and fears, to those who hear it. Similarly, composers’ manuscripts have their idiosyncrasies — distinctive traits of lettering, musical notation, abbreviations and shorthands, and even choices of paper and writing implement — that, collectively, are physical documentation of the way they do things, the choices they make, what they like and do not like. They give voice to that composer’s identity not through sonorous means, but through forensic ones.

That, in part, is how we know that very, very little of the Requiem popularly ascribed to Mozart is actually by Mozart. It’s how we know that composers often learn to compose by physically copying out other composers’ scores. It’s sometimes how we sort out counterfeit authorships, where a work is ascribed to a popular composer but actually written by someone else. Because composers’ notation and habits change over time, it’s part of how we date works for which we otherwise have no date written on them.

And it’s how we know that Florence B. Price had a hand in producing the only surviving exemplar of Margaret Bonds’s earliest surviving choral work: the Sleep Song for women’s chorus and piano, recently published by Hildegard Publishing Company as part of their ongoing Margaret Bonds Signature Series. That undated manuscript is held among the Margaret Bonds Papers in the James Weldon Johnson Collection of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University (shelfmark JWJ MSS 151 Box 8, folder 41), as are the three autographs for the solo version of Sleep Song. The latter all identify Margaret Bonds as a member of ASCAP, which Bonds joined as a non-participating member in 1952, and of which she became a full member in 1955.

There is no verbal indication that Florence Price was involved with the production of the choral version of Sleep Song — indeed, even though this choral version is clearly the same music that exists with clear attribution to Bonds as a solo song, its manuscript says only: “Music by ‘Somebody.’”

The solo version, as well as the musical style of the choral version and the voicings in its choral writing, make clear that this manuscript found in the Margaret Bonds Papers at the Beinecke is actually by Bonds (and not one of Bonds’s copies of music by somebody else). The musical script and the handwriting of the “Quietly” shown above are also hers. But other features suggest that even though the music is by Bonds, the manuscript was prepared by Florence Price. For example:

The above considerations (and one or two others, subtler) make it safe to say that Florence Price, not Margaret Bonds, prepared (wrote much of, and typed) the manuscript for the choral version of Sleep Song. They also, in part, account for the first page’s decidedly odd indication that the music is by “Somebody.”

We need to come back to those measure numbers. But first: how do we know that this is not Florence Price’s arrangement of Margaret Bonds’s song — i.e., that Price herself didn’t prepare the choral version, working from a song that Bonds wrote only for solo voice?

I don’t think that’s what happened. The reason: the choral writing does several things that belong to Margaret Bonds’s style but not to Price’s. The most obvious of these occurs in m. 21, where the piano falls silent for a moment and the unaccompanied voices, all in their middle-to-low register, have a quartal harmony closely voiced in seconds ( G — A in the sopranos and D — E in the altos) — something that the solo-voice version doesn’t hint at (it includes only the G of this harmony).

There are other such instances also (generally describable as Bondsian, but not Priceian). While it’s possible that Price did something that would be unlike her own vocal writing but not unlike that of Bonds, it’s more likely that she made a copy of a choral score by Bonds — now lost — and replicated what Bonds wrote there.

But let’s return to the last of those Priceian features — the measure numbers. Because those numbers turn out to have a larger significance as well. For the manuscript of the choral Sleep Song is 33 measures long, compared to the 47 mm. of the solo version.

Let’s game this just a bit:

The only workable answer is that the measure numbers show that in this manuscript — likely Price’s copy of a lost score for Bonds’s own choral version of Sleep Song Florence Price introduces a 16-measure cut into Bonds’s music. The reason for this cut is still unclear, of course. My own working theory is that Price wrote this to be performed by Chicago’s Treble Clef Glee Club, which she conducted, and for which she wrote her setting of Bessie Mayle’s poem Night. It was an amateur women’s chorus, and the measures that are cut are the most harmonically involved (and therefore most difficult to sing) of Sleep Song. Maybe Price cut the measures because she felt they might not be right for her choir. (There’s also an alteration in the piano part in m. 22 that would fit with this same concern.)

But that’s just a theory. For now, you’ll want to compare the “Price” (shortened) and “Bonds” versions of poet Joyce Kilmer’s Sleep Song. Both versions translate the abiding, protective parental devotion of Kilmer’s lullaby into tones. I personally find the full version more musically satisfying, but Price’s version is also beautiful and effective, even if it leaves us wishing there were more of it. The first (Price) version is given by New York’s Melodia Women’s Choir under the direction of Cynthia Powell, performed from a pre-publication print on May 22, 2022:

And now here’s the full (Bonds) version — including “reconstructed” choral voices around the solo vocal line and piano part in the measures that Price cut. This performance was given by the Cantilena Chorale of Arlington, Massachusetts, under the direction of Elinor Armsby on December 11, 2022:

So you see why I put a parenthetical question mark next to the word collaboration in the title of this post: although Sleep Song as it’s transmitted in the Beinecke manuscript is the work of both Bonds (composer) and Price (copyist/editor), it is not the sort of thing that we normally think of when we use the word collaboration. Be that as it may, whether we listen to this beautiful choral gem in its abridged or complete version, we are listening to the voices of both Margaret Bonds and Florence Price. And the fruits of those two ingenious musical minds are a joy to the senses.

Thanks for reading!

My thanks to the heirs of Margaret Bonds for permission to publish Sleep Song, and to Elinor Armsby, Cynthia Powell, the Cantilena Chorale, and the Melodia Women’s Choir for their beautiful performances of the work. Learn more about the Melodia Women’s Choir at https://melodiawomenschoirnyc.org/ and more about the Cantilena Chorale at https://www.cantilena.org/.

Originally published at https://cooperm55.wixsite.com on January 21, 2023.

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A musicologist with a passion for social justice, bringing unheard music to life for performers and listeners, and teaching.

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John Michael Cooper

A musicologist with a passion for social justice, bringing unheard music to life for performers and listeners, and teaching.