• John Michael Cooper


On Hearing a Familiar Poem by Robert Frost and an Unfamiliar Song by Margaret Bonds

Robert Frost’s (1874-1963) Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (1922-23) is one of the best-known twentieth-century poems in the English language:

Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound’s the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

On its face, the poem is a paradigm of simplicity – a snapshot of a speaker and her/his horse stopping for a moment to contemplate, and be tempted by, a patch of dark woods on a snowy evening.

But this poem is also an extraordinarily rich study in contrasts: between reasoning, scheduling humanity and eternal nature, between society (the village) and the individual, between humanity (the village, the owner of the woods, the speaker) and nature (the dark night, the horse, the woods, the silently falling snow), between the white stillness of the snow and the lovely, dark, and deep stillness of the woods, and indeed between pent-up energy (it is the horse who gives his harness bells a shake, wondering if something is wrong) and stillness itself. That last contrast is emphasized by the conflicting verbs of the last two lines (dynamic “go” and static “sleep”), which, just in case we missed it the first time, are repeated.

ANOTHER contrast: Margaret Bonds’s (1913-72) setting of Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening is as unfamiliar as Frost’s poem is familiar – in fact, it is still unpublished and has only recently been performed again. Prof. Louise Toppin (now at the University of Michigan) performed one version at a brilliantly organized Bonds symposium hosted by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and North Carolina Central University in 2013 (here’s a video of her performance), and this past March Prof. Dana Zenobi (now at Butler University) recently gave a stunning performance of my edition of both of Bond’s settings[1] at the fourth annual Music by Women festival hosted by the Mississippi University for Women. (Here is that performance, both versions back to back.)

The questions are obvious: how can a verbal poem as simultaneously simple and rich as this one by Frost be successfully set to music? How can Frost’s words be combined with melodies, harmonies, rhythms, and entrusted to two sources of utterance (voice and piano) without obliterating its simplicity – and thereby also obscuring its defining contrast between apparent simplicity and immanent complexity?

The answer: in the right hands, brilliantly. The insight and musical genius required by that task were the stock in trade of Margaret Bonds.

A few examples to justify that claim: most obvious is that Bonds translates the deliciously lyrical tone of Frost’s poem into beautiful, gracefully arching vocal melodies – lines whose every phrase begins with rapid notes and ends with a sustained note, thus musically embodying the poem’s contrast between movement and stillness, between organized time and obligations (“promises to keep”) and timelessness and (a spontaneous pause to reflect on the beauty of the white snow quietly falling into the dark stillness of the woods). Bonds also lets us hear the contrast between darkness and light: the steady rhythm of the mildly dissonant chords of the piano part create an image of the horse’s harness bells (l. 9), while the harmonic rhythm is itself slow – and at “the darkest evening of the year” the voice and accompaniment both descend while outlining a mysterious augmented sonority. At the deepest and most technical level (but one that is probably not a coincidence): Bonds’s music is mostly a study in major-sevenths – i.e., in the contrast between the tonic and the pitch that is one half-step below it (a musical dissonance, epitomizing contrasts.)

It is – they are – extraordinary and beautiful musical treatments of an extraordinary and musical poem. Why have you not heard them before?

You know the answer to that: you haven’t heard them because they were never published, and they were never published because they were, after all, composed by an African American woman – settings of a white man’s words. One of Bonds’s settings (Version B) was performed in Town Hall in New York on February 25, 1954, by African American soprano Charlotte Holloman (incidentally, a teacher of Louise Toppin), and that performance was favorably reviewed in the New York Times. Those circumstances would seem to bode well for the work’s later reception – but they didn’t, because the DWEM canon’s stranglehold on the musical world has made it extraordinarily difficult for the musical achievements of African American women, no matter how beautiful, brilliant, and moving those achievements might be, to gain even a toehold in musical life.

You’re reading this post, though. And so you have the opportunity to join with Profs. Toppin and Zenobi (and Cooper[2]) in helping these unjustly marginalized musical voices to break the silence forced upon them by their world, and our own. Listen to these performances, talk about them, and – most importantly – teach them so that young musicians and music lovers will know them as a part of their musical world. By bringing this music to light you’ll be enacting the complex negotiation of silence, reflection, darkness and light that inspired Frost’s poem – and the musical world will be the better for your having achieved a contrast between Bonds’s racially and sexistly dictated silence and the sound of her voice being heard again – finally.

[1] Another contrast: while Frost’s poem was reportedly written in a single sitting, Bonds actually composed it twice – both settings a version of the same concept, but markedly different in the relationship between the voice and the accompaniment. [2] My edition of these songs is to appear later this year. I’ll post about that separately.

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