Before diving into the music for today’s post, I want to draw attention to a quote by the poet whose texts are set in it. When faced with the question of why black authors were less prolific than their white counterparts, Langston Hughes pointed out [Google Book, p 528] that, due to racism, black authors were not afforded the same lucrative opportunities to write for mass media as white authors, and thus “[are] not in touch with the peripheral sources of literary income that enable others more fortunate to take a year off and write”*. He was talking specifically about writers of words, but the same considerations apply to writers of music as well. Conductors and performers have never made commissioning decisions based solely on musical quality (if that can even be determined objectively); they’ve always tried to work with people they like. Given the entrenchment of structural racism in our society and the oblivious self-positioning of concert music as the music of the cultural élite, it is wholly unsurprising that African-American concert composers would find many fewer opportunities to ply their craft, and that the works they produced for what opportunities they did get would languish in relative obscurity.
(Obviously, things were somewhat better financially in the world of Jazz, a rich and vibrant genre created and shaped at every turn by African-American musicians. White mainstream culture’s treatment of Jazz was (and frequently still is) baldly racist, and many white composers are guilty of pilfering from it in highly questionable ways, but at least black musicians could have successful careers in it. My focus on concert composers for African-American History month is emphatically not meant to claim that concert music is in any way superior to or more legitimate than Jazz — these posts are not trying to replace the old canon with a new, equally exclusive one — I am merely focussing on the genres of music I know best. While my knowledge of concert music is far from complete, I know enough about Jazz only to be aware of the vast, yawning chasms of my ignorance.)
Now for the music! Margaret Allison Bonds was born in Chicago in 1913, and she spent the first two decades of her life there. Her mother was a practiced musician and gave Bonds her earliest training on piano, an instrument that Bonds continued playing thruout her life. While studying music at Northwestern University, she became, at the age of twenty, the first African-American soloist to play with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and had earned her Master’s in Music by the age of 21. She continued her studies at Juilliard, but returned to Chicago to open her own music school (where she taught, among others, a young Ned Rorem), and was also active as a performer, composer, and impresario. In 1968, she moved out to Los Angeles, where she lived until her death in 1972.
Dark, brooding chords introduce her setting of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” from 1942, a setting of the poem by Langston Hughes. (Bonds had a long and enduring friendship with Hughes, and they collaborated on several projects including a cantata and at least one musical.) As with the opening words, these chords return at various points to anchor the song, sometimes in the original, but sometimes transformed from melancholy to grandeur and even joy. The music slips easily, almost dreamily, between styles, but never loses its powerful cohesion. (According to Wikipedia, Bonds submitted this piece as part of an application to study with the great French teacher Nadia Boulanger, but when Boulanger saw the song, she declared that Bonds needed no further lessons and declined to teach her. Listening, it’s not hard to hear why, even if the story is apocryphal.)
Several years later, Bonds set three more poems by Hughes, resulting in the “Three Dream Portraits” (published 1953), a cycle that shows up in pretty much every biographical sketch of the composer that I’ve found. The first is “Minstrel Man”, set to a rolling accompaniment that seems to hover right on the cusp between comfort and tragedy — fittingly, for a text that has to do with missing a black man’s deep suffering because of his (forcedly) happy surface. The mood lifts in the “Dream Variations”, with a whirling, expansive fantasy land that blossoms almost to the point of ecstasy before catching on a moment of poignancy and ending on a reserved note. It’s back down to earth for the concluding “I too Sing America”, which is at turns sarcastic, falsely cheerful, and boldly swaggering. The swagger wears off by the end, however, and the cycle draws to a close in a somewhat gloomy mood despite the assurances of the text. Looking at the subsequent and continuing history of racism in this country, it seems a sadly prescient choice.
*My thanks to uglymyfanwy for bringing this quote to my attention!