Choral composition explores racial equity, justice

The music education department chair’s work is inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois’s prose on freedom and civil rights.

Rollo Dilworth has always gravitated toward words. 

Spellbound by the power and influence they have on people, he wrote “Credo,” a choral piece inspired by a social justice essay on racial inequality.

“I’m always trying to get people to think and reflect,” said Dilworth, the chair of the Boyer College of Music and Dance’s Department of Music Education and Music Therapy. “That’s what art is supposed to do.”

The piece is a three-movement, 12-minute choral work with accompanying piano. It will premiere on Saturday in a performance by the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia at the Church of the Holy Trinity on Walnut Street near Rittenhouse Square as part of the club’s annual “American Stories: I Believe” series. 

“Credo” is set to the text of scholar and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1904 prose poem of the same name. In the nearly 500-word text, Du Bois discusses his beliefs about freedom, nonviolence and racial equality. Dilworth uses modern jazz to bring the poem to the present and to life. 

Each movement, which is a division of the larger piece, of “Credo” represents a different style of traditionally African-American music. Paul Rardin, the chair of Boyer College of Music and Dance’s Vocal Arts Department, described movement one — “I Believe in God” — as jazz, movement two — “I Believe in Service” — as inspired by blues and the third — “I Believe in Liberty” — as gospel music. 

Dilworth said he believes Du Bois’s work is still highly relevant in modern society and is using his piece to connect the racial issues of Du Bois’s time to today’s political climate. 

“I do hope that it will allow us the opportunity to hold a mirror up to ourselves as a society and think about what our responsibilities are in terms of how we treat one another,” Dilworth added.

The Mendelssohn Club commissioned Dilworth’s piece for the event, which will also feature a reprise of Dilworth’s 2011 “Rain Sequence” based on poems by Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar. Dilworth said he will hold a teaching session with the audience on Saturday so they can sing along during the finale. 

Rardin, who is also the artistic director of the Mendelssohn Club, will conduct “Credo.” 

“The singers and I are just loving it,” Rardin said. “It’s one of those pieces that makes you feel great singing it. It’s uplifting.”

Although the language in Du Bois’s poem is outdated compared to modern prose, Dilworth said he believes Du Bois’s ideas of inclusivity are current. 

“I hope it will resonate with people in 2018 and help them to understand where we were back then historically, but also to take a look at where we are now and see if his belief statement has come true in a passable and meaningful way,” Dilworth said.

The Gleeksman-Kohn Children’s choir will also join the performance, which honors the late prominent American composer Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday. 

The Mendelssohn Club started the “American Stories” concert series about two years ago to look at diversity in American music, Rardin said. 

“The music that we’re doing before Rollo’s music is different enough, but also exciting enough, that the audience is going to have a real feast of different things,” Rardin said. “[They’re] very rich dishes.” 

The 100-person Mendelssohn Choir, made up almost entirely of volunteers, rehearsed “Credo” weekly since September. Rardin and Dilworth invited the Gleeksman-Kohn Children’s Choir to include more local singers. 

Rae Ann Anderson is the conductor and director of the children’s choir, which she founded in 2006. She said the children have enjoyed working directly with Dilworth, and they continue singing the text even as they leave rehearsals.  

“By adding children to the choir and to this performance, it really adds a sincerity of what the text is meant to mean,” Anderson said. “It speaks.”  

For Dilworth, the opportunity to share Du Bois’s work through music is the chance to connect with the audience on a deeper level than just through words. 

“Music is an art form that allows us to express ourselves,” Dilworth said. “It allows us to explore other cultures, other worlds, other thoughts that are out there. But it also helps us to learn more about who we are as human beings.

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