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  • Writer's pictureJohn Michael Cooper



Earlier in this series I’ve blogged about the beautiful, fascinating, and still-unpublished song “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” by one of the most extraordinary composers of twentieth-century music: Margaret Bonds (1913-72) -- African American and genius by birth, composer and pianist by vocation, self-described humanitarian and social-justice advocate by passionate resolve. (Here’s the Bonds page at blog.) As of today, there’s a new recording of this song done by an extraordinary international team based in Antwerp, featuring bass-baritone Justin Hopkins and passionate and ingenious pianist Jeanne-Minette Cilliers. It’s part of a new video series titled #SongsofComfort, and it’s the first time I’ve heard this setting of Robert Frost’s classic poem done by a male voice. Hopkins channels the role just beautifully. Cilliers does the same for Bonds’s imaginative and difficult piano part. (Bonds made a career as a solo and duo pianist as well as a collaborative one, and Cilliers’s playing vividly displays the special delight the composer must have taken in this particular part with wit and ingenuity.) The whole performance is filmed live by videographer Andrew Richards (himself a wonderful tenor who’s currently performing the role of Aegysth in Strauss’s Elektra at the Klagenfurt Opera in Austria):

There’s a great deal more to be said – and done – in making the musical voice of the ingenious Margaret Bonds into a deservedly integral presence in today’s understanding of the rich musical landscape of the twentieth century in the U.S. These performances by the #SongsofComfort team are fittingly ingenious in helping us to glimpse something of the immediacy of expression and the fresh, intimate beauty of Bonds’s music – because, with resourcefulness brilliant in its bold defiance of COVID’s denial of immediate interpersonal interactions, they’re delivering music videos that are, in nearly every sense, LIVE. Here’s how videographer/producer Andrew Richards explains it:

We are doing something that feels slightly dangerous and unique. As a rule, the very highest-level artists are using prerecorded playback while filming. While they may be performing along to what they hear on set they are usually not being recorded with audio. By design, we are attempting to provide a live concert experience, but for the video era. These clips are filmed WHILE recording the performance. They are not lip synced. Of course, because I'm only using one camera, the audio and video takes will often be divergent. But regardless, very little editing is done between audio takes because we are trying to provide a real-world LIVE experience. Our hope is we can present the song repertoire in a new and interesting way for a public who so often views these videos on their mobile devices – a challenge, sure, but one worth pursuing if we want to keep the art form growing.

And that intentional and immensely effective sense of immediacy raises one other issue: the fact that despite a steadily growing community of scholars and other musicians who are working to come to terms with Bonds and other composers of the African diaspora, this song and literally hundreds of other works by Bonds have been allowed to remain unpublished and circulate only privately for decades. The opportunity to know Bonds’s voice through this song and other unpublished and soon-to-be-published works is an opportunity for us to resist the temptation of creating a new orthodoxy that essentially obliterates the virtuosity of Bonds’s stylistic eclecticism. It’s a chance for us to come to know Bonds through her musical celebration of the very sort of freedom and individuality that her own world tried so vociferously to deny her. The irrepressible freshness of the #SongsofComfort team’s approach brings us face to face with that immediacy of expression. And it is a beautiful thing indeed.

A quick musicological note: there are actually two discrete versions of the song: one was written for the acclaimed African American soprano and legendary vocal pedagogue Charlotte Wesley Holloman (1922-2015) and performed by her in New York’s Town Hall in 1954; the other, which appears to have been written later, is dedicated to a “Doctor Joan,” otherwise unidentified (a task for Bonds’s future biographers). The vocal lines are essentially the same in both versions, but in the later (“Doctor Joan”) version the piano accompaniment is much more involved – if one hears the jingly dissonances in the pianist’s right hand as musical depictions of the “little horse’s” sleigh bells, then the horse is a much more active in the later version. You’ll hear this vividly in Jeanne-Minette’s performance. (Both versions are soon to be published in my edition by Hildegard Publishing Company.)

The richness of Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” stems not least from its celebration of contrasts, including, at a very deep level, the contrast between its unimposing appearance and a deep, even profound contemplation of a philosophical tug-of-war between the rich and beautiful stillness of nature and the seemingly important and always pressing, but ultimately trivial, constraints of the “things to do” that dictate most waking hours in human experience. Bonds’s setting translates that richness into tones compellingly – and in so doing makes it possible for us to view her and her place in the musical worlds of the twentieth century afresh. Kudos to the #Songsofcomfort team for their brilliance in making that freshness and immediacy the artistic imperative of their recording!

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