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Du Bois Back in Harvard


W. E. B. DuBois

Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope—a faith in the ultimate justice of things. The minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence. Sometimes it is faith in life, sometimes a faith in death, sometimes assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond. But whichever it is, the meaning is always clear: that sometime, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins. Is such a hope justified? Do the Sorrow Songs sing true?   — W.E.B. DuBois

The Harvard Glee Club will celebrate the legacy of  W.E.B. Du Bois in a free concert on Saturday March 2nd at Harvard Memorial Church at 8pm with organ improvisations, overtures, arias, recitatives and a culminating chorus with audience participation to “make the circle wider.”

In Harvard, but not of it

Last year marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of the American sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, author, writer, editor, and Harvard alumnus (AB 1890) W.E.B. Du Bois. After completing an undergraduate degree from Fisk College in 1888, DuBois matriculated at Harvard, where he would become the first black recipient of a PhD. Although Du Bois was extremely successful in the academic realm and enjoyed close relationships with several teachers, he felt alienated among his peers, saying that he was “in Harvard, but not of it.” Elaborating on this aspect of his experiences over 70 years later, DuBois wrote the following:

“I sought no friendships among my white fellow students, nor even acquaintanceships. Of course I wanted friends, but I could not seek them… Only one organization did I try to enter, and I ought to have known better than to make this attempt. But I did have a good singing voice and loved music, so I entered the competition for the Glee Club. I ought to have known that Harvard could not afford to have a Negro on its Glee Club traveling about the country. Quite naturally I was rejected.”

Du Bois never forgot the Harvard Glee Club, so today we are creating a concert devoted to remembering and honoring his legacy. It will explore the man and the movement — a struggle for African-American equality that is older than America itself.

Making the Circle Wider

To develop this concert, the Glee Club is working with Tesfa Wondemagegnehu, a composer, singer, educator, and activist who is renowned in the choral world for his work with African-American spirituals.

Currently at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, Wondemagegnehu (bio here) has worked with the Glee Club on every aspect of the concert, from arranging several of the pieces in the program to offering his renowned baritone voice to sing alongside us. He flew to Cambridge and rehearsed with the Glee Club in early February, where he led a discussion on the enduring relevance of African-American spirituals and the importance of activism. He told the group that “Du Bois was not allowed to join the Glee Club. I was allowed [to work with you]. Now it’s my job to make the circle wider.”

A Synthesis of Traditions

Wondemagegnehu and Andrew Clark, conductor of the Glee Club, are drawing from a variety of musical traditions from world history, synthesizing them with the goal of making our exploration as rich and meaningful as it can be.

From a bird’s-eye view, the concert is based on oratorio, a musical form that originated in the late Renaissance. A cousin of the opera, oratorios explore weighty topics without use of characters or dialogue. The oratorio has four key features, each of which we will be adapting.

  1. There will be overtures, short instrumental pieces in which pianist accompanist Thomas Sheehan will improvise on a spiritual that relates to the movement to come.
  2. The program will include arias, i.e. solos.
  3. While recitatives, where singers lapse into speech, traditionally advance oratorio plots, in our concert students and guests will read passages from Du Bois and others to provide context and a narrative framework between songs.
  4. In culminating choruses, the audience will be able to sing along to several spirituals. While audience participation is hardly a traditional part of oratorio, we trust that the addition of this component will indeed “make the circle wider.”

A Tribute to The Souls of Black Folk

At the beginning of every chapter of his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois includes sheet music from a spiritual and an excerpt from a European work. The juxtaposition asserts the two traditions as artistic equals by placing them side by side. The Glee Club will present its own take on this model, singing spirituals alongside traditional European pieces in our repertoire.

In the first portion of the show, called “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” the concert will open with the Kyrie of English composer William Byrd, who was forced to work in secret because of his Catholic faith. Following this work will be the spirituals “I’m A-Rollin’ Through an Unfriendly World” and “Steal Away,” which advance the themes of oppression and secret resistance to it that began with the Kyrie.

The second movement will begin with David Tomkins’s “When David Heard,” a haunting piece about the bereavement of King David. The Tomkins is a staple of tenor-bass choruses, but it will be followed by a piece that has never been performed before. “To Love,” written by Nathan Robinson (AB 2020) as part of the Harvard Choruses’ New Music Initiative, is a choral setting of The Souls of Black Folk. Robinson focused on a chapter called “Of the Passing of the Firstborn,” from which the entire movement takes its name, which discusses the passing of Du Bois’s infant son and is laced with religious imagery that connects it deeply with “When David Heard.” The new arrangement deftly navigates the complex emotions Du Bois felt about his son’s brief life. Robinson explains that “Du Bois is shaken to the core by [his son’s death,] but at the same time experiences an ‘awful gladness,’ knowing that his child would not consciously suffer the horrors of his society.” As Du Bois writes, his son is “not dead, but escaped; not bond, but free.”

The Glee Club will open with the final movement with “I Shall Not Die Without a Hope,” written by Randall Thompson (AB 1920) during World War II. The conflict incited a cultural battle in the US against the dominance of German music, and as part of the desire to build an independent choral tradition the government commissioned Thompson to set a letter by Thomas Jefferson. “Even should the cloud of barbarism and despotism again obscure … Europe, this country remains to preserve and restore light and liberty … the flames kindled on the 4th of July, 1776, have spread over too much of the globe to be extinguished.” The patriotic text and bombastic setting are optimistic, uncomplicated, and flawed in representing a vision of America that forgets the darkness of its own history. To explore a more complex vision, we will conclude the concert with “America Will Be!”, a recent work by Paul Rudoi setting Langston Hughes’s “Let America Be America Again.” Hughes writes from the perspective of everyone whom the Spirit of ’76 never stood for, reminding us that the American dream was never intended for everyone, yet that does not mean that it cannot be so one day. America is “a land that has never been yet,” but “America will be!”

What has Beauty to do with Truth and Goodness—with the facts of the world and the right actions of men? … I am but a humble disciple of art and cannot presume to say. I am one who tells the truth and exposes evil and seeks with Beauty and for Beauty to set the world right.”     — W.E.B. Du Bois

Michael Baick is a freshman at Harvard Colege from Longmeadow, MA and a bass in the Glee Club.


Tefsa Wondemagegnehu and the Glee Club in Sanders Theater.

The Legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois
Harvard Glee Club
Tesfa Wondemagegnehu, conductor
Andrew Clark, conductor

Of Our Spiritual Strivings
Improvisation on Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen
Thomas Sheehan, pianist
William Byrd: Kyrie from Mass for Three Voices
I’m A-Rollin’ Through an Unfriendly World
Spiritual arr. Paul Rardin (b.1965)
Steal Away Spiritual arr. Brazeal Dennard (1929-2010)
*Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round
Spiritual arr. J. David Moore (b.1962)

Of the Passing of the Firstborn
Improvisation on Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child
Thomas Sheehan, pianist
Thomas Tomkins: When David Heard
Nathan Robinson (20): To Love (world premiere)
*Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
Spiritual arr. J. David Moore (b.1962)

Of the Dawn of Freedom
Improvisation on My Lord, What a Mornin’ (Mourning)
Thomas Sheehan, pianist
Randall Thompson: I Shall Not Die Without a Hope from the Testament of Freedom
Paul John Rudoi: America Will Be!
from “Let America Be America Again,” by Langston Hughes
*We Shall Overcome
Spiritual arr. Tesfa Yohannes Wondemagegnehu (b.1982)

*indicates audience participation



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