SONG WITHOUT WORDS

Lara Downes Plays “the Heart” of Margaret Bonds’s and W.E.B. Du Bois’s Credo

People usually complain that music is so ambiguous; that what they should of think when they hear it is so unclear, whereas everyone understands words. But for me it is just the opposite, and not just with entire discourses, but also with individual words — these, too, seem to me so ambiguous, so unclear, so misleading in comparison to good music, which fills the soul with a thousand things better than words. — What the music I love expresses to me is thoughts not too unclear for words, but rather too clear (Felix Mendelssohn on his Songs without Words, to Marc-André Souchay, Oct. 15, 1842).

In 1965 Margaret Bonds’s and Langston Hughes’s Christmas cantata, The Ballad of the Brown King,was still selling in great volume, with dozens of performances in the U.S. every year and other performances as far away as Nigeria. With that economic leverage, on Thursday, September 9 she met with Fred Fox and Ralph Satz of the cantatas’s publisher, Sam Fox Publishing Company, and played for them her recently completed Credo — a cantata-like setting of the iconic civil-rights manifesto of W.E.B. Du Bois.

After that meeting, she found herself in a difficult position. A few days later, on Sept. 13, she wrote to Du Bois’s widow, Shirley Graham Du Bois, to follow up: “Both gentlemen were deeply impressed and joyful that another cantata of mine is soon to be ready for the market,” she said, but they would not publish the work unless she obtained Ms. Du Bois’s permission to change “Especially do I believe in the Negro race” to “Especially do I believe in the Human race.”

(This is the closest thing I can imagine to responding to “Black lives matter” by saying “All lives matter.”)

The offending text, as penned by Du Bois in 1904 and 1920 and composed by Bonds:

Especially do I believe in the Negro race, in the beauty of its genius, the sweetness of its soul, and its strength in that meekness which shall yet inherit this turbulent earth.

Shirley Graham Du Bois — God bless her — responded decisively. “[M]y answer to your request must be a categorical ‘NO.’” And she continued that the specified change

cuts the heart out of the CREDO. “Especially do I believe in the Negro race” is what my husband was saying all his life. He returned to Africa to underline that fact.

Here I would not compromise at any point.

Indeed, I feel so strongly about this that I am sending a copy of this letter to my lawyer in New York with instructions that he write you and Mr. Fox.

And with that, the fate of Margaret Bonds’s visionary Credo was sealed: the world of classical-music performance is utterly dependent on printed and published music. The Credo, doomed by the White-dominated firm’s refusal to publish Bonds’s and Du Bois’s affirmation of the inherent beauty, dignity, and humanity of Blackness, would remain in manuscript — a circumstance that determined that it would be heard only twice during Bonds’s lifetime and once in partial form and once in its entirety after her death, and that it would then disappear into the archives.

That is precisely what happened. Bonds could have approached another publisher, of course; but her economic clout was greater with Sam Fox than with any other firm, and she would in any case remain an African American woman asking a White-dominated firm to publish a work whose text and music celebrated Blackness.

There’s much more to this story of Margaret Bonds and the political economy of music publishing, and I’ll share that later. For now, suffice it to say that while Fox’s flexing of economic muscle effectively silenced the Credo for more than half a century, the work is now published in both the original version for chorus with piano and the following year’s version for chorus and orchestra (both with soprano and bass-baritone soloists). “Especially do I believe in the Negro race” is also published separately (take THAT, Sam Fox!).

Which brings me back to where I started.

While preparing my edition of the Credo I shared with my brilliant friend Lara Downes a piano-solo arrangement of the movement whose text proved so problematic for Sam Fox Publishing. Lara was appropriately taken with it. She’s now recorded and released it — and while I cannot deny the beauty, power, and musical eloquence of the original (texted) version of this movement, Lara’s rendition goes a long way toward corroborating Felix Mendelssohn’s assertion that “good music . . . fills the soul with a thousand things better than words”:

Originally published at https://cooperm55.wixsite.com on August 1, 2022.

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John Michael Cooper

John Michael Cooper

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