A HISTORIC RE-ENACTMENT
Margaret Bonds’s Montomery Variations and Credo on the Same Program with the Hartford Chorale and Hartford Symphony Orchestra
Margaret Bonds’s The Montgomery Variations (1963–64) and setting of W.E.B. Du Bois’s iconic civil-rights Credo (1965–67), both published on a rental basis by Theodore Presser in 2020,have long been considered her orchestral and choral-orchestral masterpieces (although it must be noted that Margaret Bonds’s own authentic orchestral version of the other main contender in the choral/orchestral category, The Ballad of the Brown King has not been heard in modern memory). Both works are passionate and intrepid musical appeals for racial justice directed to a world in which certain sectors, in her day as in ours, considered such appeals controversial. And both are masterpieces — genuine masterpieces that, even though they speak truth to power in ways that no other classical composer of her generation dared, would have been easily published, widely performed, and recorded if their composer had been White and male. Together, they set the tone for the final chapter of Bonds’s career — a chapter that was, for her at least, a new beginning.
So for the career-long racial-justice champion Margaret Bonds, the experience of hearing both of those racial-justice manifestos on the same program must have been a powerful one — indeed, beautiful.
It happened just once in her lifetime.
And it’s now poised to happen again.
In her lifetime, that performance happened in 1967. The same year in which she received a prestigious Alumni Merit Award from Northwestern University, where she had endured intense racism while earning her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees (1929–34). The same year in which the piano/vocal version of Credo was performed in an all-Bonds program organized by Frederick Wilkerson in Washington, D.C. The same year in which Langston Hughes, her friend, confidant, and artistic collaborator of three decades, died in May.
It was year of triumph and tragedy for Margaret Bonds.
We don’t know much about that amazing 1967 performance, but a typed note stamped “12/18/67” for the Northwestern University Alumni News gives most of the essentials. The performance took place in San Francisco under the baton of legendary choral conductor Albert McNeil (1920–2022), a close friend and collaborator of the composer for much of her career, and the Albert McNeil Singers (now the Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers).
Since then the Credo and The Montgomery Variations have been kept apart — an unfortunate decoupling that deprives both works of some of the aggregate power and eloquence that is their essence, and that is as desperately needed in our own time as it was in Bonds’s own.
Now the Harford Chorale and Hartford Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Interim Music Director Jack Anthony Pott, are fixing that — and, fittingly enough, combining Margaret Bonds’s two racial-justice manifestos with In Honor of Martin (2005), a powerful five-movement work by David Hurd (b. 1950). Soprano Jolie Rocke will feature as soloist in №2 of the Credo (“Especially Do I Believe in the Negro Race,” which Shirley Graham Du Bois described as “the heart” of Du Bois’s text), and Marques Jerrell Ruff will feature as the baritone soloist in the radiant and expansive movement “I Believe in Liberty for All Men” (№6). It will be the Connecticut professional premiere of all three works. I also had the privilege of reading an advance copy of the program essay by Richard H. Wilson, Jr.- a superb introduction to both works of Bonds.
The Hartford Chorale and Hartford Symphony Orchestra performance of The Montgomery Variations, David Hurd’s In Honor of Martin, and the Bonds/Du Bois Credo will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, February 24, 2023, in the Belding Theater of The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford. Tickets are available here.
 Additionally, the piano-vocal score of Credo was published for purchase by Hildegard Publishing Company in February 2022, and the same firm published a study score of The Montgomery Variations in mid-2022. The study score of the orchestral version of the Credo is to appear later in 2023.