Yale Camerata to celebrate African American history and culture
In a celebration of African-American history, culture, and resiliency, the Yale Camerata’s spring concert, “To Sit and Dream,” will feature works that combine the words of W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes — two giants of American letters — with music by pathbreaking composer Margaret Bonds.
The concert, being held April 30 in Woolsey Hall, will begin with the Camerata’s performance of Bonds’ multimovement work, “Credo,” which features the text of Du Bois’s 1904 prose poem of the same title in which the renowned historian, sociologist, and civil-rights advocate described his own philosophy of racial equality. The Chicago-born Bonds, who was among the first Black women to gain widespread recognition as a composer, set Du Bois’s text to music, transforming his words and ideas into what is regarded as a choral masterpiece.
The concert’s second half will feature collaborations by Bonds and Hughes, who were longtime friends and artistic partners.
“The artistry of these three celebrated individuals promotes the beauty, intelligence, and grace of the African-American culture,” said Felicia Barber, the Camerata’s conductor and an associate professor (adjunct) of choral conducting at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale School of Music. “‘Credo’ depicts a positive description of African Americans, which is especially significant because Du Bois wrote the text during a period of Jim Crow. The affirming statements of African Americans’ inherent value in Du Bois’s texts serve as a contrasting narrative to the negative characterization of the community, one which was institutionalized by both local and state laws of racial oppression and segregation.
“In a similar fashion, the poetry of Langston Hughes challenges negative stereotypes associated with the African-American community while also providing an aspirational vision for freedom, for hope, simply put, for more,” she added. “We are extremely excited to share this repertoire and the ideas they express with the campus and local communities.”
The Yale Camerata is a 70-voice vocal ensemble whose membership includes Yale graduate and undergraduate students, faculty, staff, and singers from the New Haven community. The group performs a wide and varied spectrum of sacred choral literature, with a special commitment to topically relevant and culturally diverse repertoire.
As they prepared for the performance, the Camerata’s members had the opportunity to view materials at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, part of the Yale University Library, which highlight Hughes’ and Bonds’ friendship and their long-running artistic collaboration. The choir members took turns leafing through seven folders of correspondence between the poet and the composer, an archive that contains engrossing evidence of their intimate friendship.
“It was fascinating to see how frequently they communicated, their inside jokes, and the humanity of what they were doing,” said Jacob Robins, a postdoctoral researcher in Yale’s Department of Chemistry who joined the Camerata last fall. “It’s not just that Margaret Bonds decided to set Hughes’ text to music. There was a real artistic collaboration. I’d imagine her experiences working with Hughes informed her decision to set Du Bois’s text to music.”
Camerata member Countess Cooper, who is pursuing a master’s degree in sacred theology at the Yale Divinity School, was also impressed by the strength of the artists’ bond.
“It was great to see the affection between the two of them,” Cooper, a military chaplain said. “I stand in awe of how closely they worked together. I had a sense of it with the music, but seeing the correspondence deepened that sense. Langston Hughes wrote great poetry and Margaret Bonds helped bring those words to life through her music.”
Cooper said that learning to sing the words of Hughes set to Bonds’ compositions has been a highlight of her experience at Yale.
“We need more music, synthesis, and coming together in this world,” she said. “I think of how W.E.B. Du Bois wrote ‘Credo’ at a very dark time in our history. If he could have hope during Jim Crow, perhaps our performance of the work can inspire hope in others.”
Du Bois’s text is formatted as a series of belief statements. His prose poem opens by declaring his belief that “all men, black and white, are brothers, varying through Time and Opportunity, in form and gift and feature, but differing in no essential particular, and alike in soul and in the possibility of infinite development.”
He then emphasizes his belief “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.”
Alex Whittington, a member of the Camerata, explained that getting to better know the music of Bonds, particularly “Credo,” has been an inspiring and joyful experience.
“The pride of race has been at the source of so much violence perpetuated against Black people in America,” said Whittington, who is pursuing a master’s degree in music history in Yale’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. “In a way, I thought it was really beautiful to see how [Du Bois] reclaimed that text and really brings the listener’s attention, through Margaret Bonds’ setting, towards what the pride of race is for Black Americans, who have had to create a radically different and beautiful identity for themselves in a country where many odds are still stacked against them.”
“To Sit and Dream,” begins at 4 p.m. in Woolsey Hall, 500 College Street in New Haven. The concert is free and open to the public.