Harvard Glee Club, Du Bois and a wider circle

DuBois

A member of the Harvard Glee Club reflects on the role of art in history in a concert on March 2.

By guest blogger Michael Baick '22

Like many choruses, the Harvard Glee Club knows the power of singing in a circle. It captures the strength and timbre of every voice, encouraging us to listen for one another and refine our harmonies. No one is blocked; no one stands in front of anyone else. You can read every face, almost as important as reading the music itself. From many parts we become one sound, one idea.

This formation represents everything that I love about choral music, but it also stands for everything I question about it. A chorus is a powerful community, but an insular one. By the nature of its shape, a circle is closed.

Let me explain.

Harvard Glee Club
Tesfa Wondemagegnehu, Cornel West, Andrew Clark and the Harvard Glee Club

On March 2, the Glee Club will be a holding The Legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois, a 90-minute free concert interpretation of the life and contributions of a titan in American history and Harvard’s first black Ph.D. recipient. Du Bois loved music and was an accomplished singer, although the Glee Club turned him away when he tried to join them. This caused some skepticism about the project. Was the concert just a vain attempt for the Glee Club to wash away an ugly moment in its history?

In early February, the Glee Club met Tesfa Wondemagegnehu, our guest artist for the concert. A renowned activist and educator, Wondemagegnehu has devoted his life to making choral music an agent of justice. Early on, he led a discussion about the enduring relevance of the spirituals in our repertoire, drawing a straight line from the first African slaves arriving on the continent in 1619 to the struggle of African American people in 2019.

We cannot change the past, he told us, so it is our collective responsibility to engage with history, to interpret and enrich it. Music is like that, too. It’s a timeless and ever-changing expression that can allow us to understand humanity ­– but only if every voice is heard. Wondemagegnehu put it best when he told us about his own hopes for the concert. “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.”

Listen to the Harvard Glee Club rehearse a piece from the concert here.

On the night of the concert, Wondemagegnehu and the Glee Club will stand in rows, but we will be making the circle as wide as we can. We will amplify voices from across space and time, refining the harmonies among Renaissance pieces, spirituals and even a new student composition. No tradition will stand in front of any other; every history is equally important to our present. If we do it right, the audience will join in, and from many parts we will become one sound, one idea. It will be a circle, imperfect but growing wider.

I was hesitant to sing when I arrived on campus in the fall, worried that music was a distraction from my academics. I am glad that I auditioned for the Harvard Glee Club, where I have learned to appreciate the unique power of art to illuminate history and advance justice.

The concert is free but requires tickets. Click here for info.

Learn more at harvardgleeclub.org/dubois. Read more about the concert in The Harvard Gazette.