MARGARET BONDS: “NO MAN HAS SEEN HIS FACE” (1968)
Fifty-one-year-old Owen Brady was found unconscious and riddled with bullets inside a wrecked and burning car that had crashed into the wall of a church school building in Los Angeles in the early hours of 10 August 1974; he was pronounced dead at 2:25 a.m. The coordinator of the Los Angeles Bureau of Music, he was a noted choral director and organist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He was proclaimed a “genius” by those who worked with him. The motive for his murder seems never to have been discovered, the murderers never caught; one angry (and racist) letter to the editor blamed it on the tide of racial violence. His death was deplored in the press for weeks following, and memorials spoke of his “legacy.”
Part of that legacy connected directly to Margaret Bonds.
For some six years earlier, at 11:00 a.m. on September 1, 1968, Brady had conducted the choir of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills, where he had worked since 1962, in the world premiere of an exquisite choral composition by Margaret Bonds: No Man Has Seen His Face:
That performance of this choral gem remained the only one until quite recently. For the work remained in manuscript at Bonds’s death in 1972, then passed into the possession of her daughter, Djane Richardson (1946–2011). It then passed to Richardson’s landlord before being purchased at auction by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University in 2012. I edited it some years later and published it as part of Hildegard Publishing Company’s Margaret Bonds Signature Series in 2021.
So the half-century silence of No Man Has Seen His Face is now ended — and the work is a beauty. Its words, written by Bonds’s close friend and frequent collaborator Janice Lovoos (1903–2007), a multifaceted artist, critic, and librettist, seem (as Dr. David Polley wrote to me recently) to proceed from Colossians 1:15 and 2:9, and 2 Corinthians 4:6. In those verses, the Apostle Paul teaches that Jesus is the image of the invisible God and the embodiment of deity in its fullness, and that in the knowledge of that invisible face God shines the light of the knowledge of His glory. Here’s Lovoos’s trope on those lovely verses:
On 21 March 1968 Bonds, obviously inspired, wrote out three different versions of her setting of those words: one for medium voice (still unpublished), one for high voice (this published in 2020 by Dr. Louise Toppin in her seminal collection of art songs, popular songs, and spirituals by Bonds), and the choral version that inspires this little post. Her setting, poignant and deceptively simple, is a far cry from the complexities of her Mass in D Minor and Credo. It’s cut from the same cloth as other recently published compositions including Touch the Hem of His Garment and St. Francis’ Prayer, as well as her setting of Stephen Grellet’s I Shall Pass through this World but Once (which Bonds published with Bourne Co. [New York] in 1967). It falls into the category of what she termed “educational music” — music written so that dedicated amateur musicians, especially church and school choirs, would have access to high-quality music that didn’t exceed the technical abilities of non-professional musicians. For those who know of Margaret Bonds, her commitment to making good music available to all, to challenging the invisible but powerful barriers that pervade modern musical life, will be no surprise.
This past Wednesday, I finally heard No Man Has Seen His Face live for the first time, as the choir of Grace Episcopal Church in Georgetown, Texas, rehearsed it — a veritably revelatory experience, since hearing a work in one’s head while studying it and editing it is a poor substitute for the experience of hearing it done live by singers and a pianist who are obviously savoring every one of those notes put down on those pages by the estimable Margaret Bonds, and now made available through the kind permission of her heirs and the good offices of the folk at Hildegard Publishing Company.
Let me close on a personal note. I teach music history and literature; it’s my job and my passion to introduce others to music they might not otherwise know, to help them to understand it in whatever terms are authentic to themselves. So it was a real and very personal joy to me to see not only esteemed colleagues, but also current and former students as well as community members, singing this sparkling and newly recovered gem. I know that music director Dr. David Polley (whose work as organist I’ve admired for some sixteen years) and Dr. Bruce Cain, chair of the Music Department at Southwestern University (where I teach; Bruce is he of the Brahmsian beard), have known Margaret Bonds’s name and some of her music for years. I also know that this was the first musical encounter with Margaret Bonds for lead soprano soloist Addie Henry and closing soprano soloist Afsoneh Esfandiari, who took Music Literature courses with me some years ago, and I know that while former student Brooks Taylor (Southwestern University sweatshirt in the back row) and current student Mak Palacio (back row, outside left) have heard much about Bonds, and some of her music, in my classes, they have not sung this piece before (tomorrow’s performance will evidently be its Texas premiere).
That’s it. That’s the post. Thanks for reading; now listen, and enjoy: