In Margaret Bonds’ 1965 cantata CREDO, her creative choices speak to the political, artistic, and spiritual significance of the work. It’s no small thing that her selected text is W.E.B. Dubois’ 1904 essay/prose poem of the same name. For what is a “Credo?” A declaration of loyalty to a concept or ideal; in the Mass Ordinary it is initially performed during baptism. By choosing a liturgical genre and setting Dubois’ words in her Afro-classical style, Bonds declared that dedication to racial equality is another mode of spiritual salvation.
On Feb. 3 and 5, conductor Lina González-Granados will lead soprano Brandie Sutton, baritone Ethan Vincent, and the Opera Philadelphia orchestra and chorus in a performance of Bonds’ CREDO with Orff’s Carmina Burana at the Academy of Music. The event is part of Opera Philadelphia’s Sounds of America program that centers the artistic impact of Bonds, her teacher-colleague Florence Price, and major figures in their creative orbit, like Philly’s own Marian Anderson.
“Audience members will grow their knowledge of how people in and around the Philadelphia cultural scene shaped music and the world today,” explains Veronica Chapman-Smith, Opera Philadelphia’s VP of Community Initiatives. “For me, as a classically trained Black soprano born and raised in Philadelphia, any time we can amplify the brilliant artistry of Black musicians, past and present, and can tie it to Philadelphia, it becomes deeply meaningful.”
While this marks the cantata’s Philadelphia debut, it’s not the world premiere. That honor takes us back to March 12, 1967, in Washington, D.C., to an all-Bonds concert arranged by her friend, Frederick Wilkerson. Within the last few years, the work has been part of the resurgence of interest in Black composers rippling through predominantly white institutions.
The energy has been intense – eager, taut, and urgent – because performers of Bonds’ works (and of her colleagues’) are entering a unique territory. While we’re familiar with the stylistic era in which CREDO was created, this work has a brief programming history and performance practice. And the Afro-classical roots of Bonds’ style have yet to penetrate the curricula of mainstream conservatories and music schools, requiring musicians to face and address their learning curves. How else can you draw out the layers of meaning, reference, and expression that are recorded on the page?
González-Granados and Chorus Master Elizabeth Braden meet this challenge as only they know how: through close study and an embrace of Bonds’ artistic priorities.
“I think we have the privilege to actually be an active part of creating that tradition, instead of following somebody else’s interpretation,” says González-Granados. “The text is beautifully adapted, and I have the only – and to be honest the most important – tool I need, which is the score. As long as we are honoring Margaret Bonds’ intentions and creative instincts, that is the only thing I pay attention to.”
“Studying and rehearsing a piece with not much performance tradition is, for me, rather freeing,” Braden says. “It really does let the conductor make interpretive and musical decisions based on the composer’s score, without being influenced by the way other famous conductors, orchestras, or choruses have presented the piece. Starting with what is like a blank canvas in the mind of the performers is a great experience to have – we can all learn the piece together in the present moment.”
CREDO contains seven movements, each set to a stanza from Dubois’ text. Like the Credo of the Mass Ordinary, CREDO opens with “I believe in God,” and continues with “who made of one blood all nations that on earth do dwell.” Bonds sets the SATB choir in parallel fifths, moving from rhythmic unison to a fugal texture and back again. It’s not until “Especially Do I Believe in the Negro Race” that we hear the soprano soloist for the first and only time. In this movement, Bonds’ syncretic style is even more apparent through the coloratura recitative with phrase-ending blue notes and call-and-response textures between soloist and choir.
“I Believe in the Pride of the Race” begins with dissonance and fire, rhythmic solidarity shifting to polyphonic overlap between the tenors and basses. The altos and sopranos return in “I Believe in the Devil and His Angels,” as the basses split into two sections. The tense, discordant atmosphere is constant thanks to tremolo in the bassoon and a percussive figure in the timpani and lower strings that repeats, repeats, repeats…
Which makes the transition to the next movement all the more stark. “I Believe in the Prince of Peace” doesn’t just sound hopeful; it sounds like a familiar Christmas carol. With elements of the African-American gospel tradition, Bonds’ signifyin(g) on “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” adds another layer to this movement and the work as a whole: belief in one’s spiritual savior is as important as belief in the universal equality of all men.
“I Believe in Liberty” is the baritone’s time to shine. Tender and light articulation allows for a resonance that evokes sacred works performed in cathedrals. It also provides contrast for the final movement, “I Believe in Patience,” which is rumbling, epic, and dark. This patience is frustrated, hopeful, and determined. As noted in the scholarship of Dr. Rollo Dilworth, CREDO’s opening motive appears throughout the work, but it is most significant here, emerging with force in the final measures of the piece.
There is an edge to Bonds’ CREDO – a firm declaration wrapped in gentle solidity, where the end is just as important as the beginning. Because while cyclical form in classical music is typically a tool to keep a thematic through-line across movements, Bonds’ use speaks to African-American music forms, patterns, and symbolism: the ring shout, thematic variation, and other methods of repetition. By opening and closing with the same motive, Bonds creates a circle where meaning and nuance emerge and change with each listen – a clever way to say this journey ain’t linear and nowhere close to finished.
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