Women's Herstory Month Series: Margaret Bonds

Margaret Allison Bonds (March 3, 1913 – April 26, 1972) was an American composer and pianist. One of the first black composers and performers to gain recognition in the United States, she is best remembered today for her frequent collaborations with Langston Hughes.

Florence Price

A native of Chicago, Bonds grew up in a home visited by many of the leading black intellectuals of the era; among houseguests were soprano Abbie Mitchell and composers Florence Price and Will Marion Cook. Bonds showed an early aptitude for composition, writing her first work, "Marquette Street Blues," at the age of five. Her parents were Monroe Alpheus Majors and his second wife, Estelle C. Bonds. Margaret took the last name, Bonds, after her parents divorced in 1917. Her first study in music came when she took piano lessons from her mother. While still in school, she studied composition with Price and with William Dawson. Bonds worked as an accompanist for dances and singers in various shows and supper clubs around Chicago; she also copied music parts for other composers, and became involved with the National Association of Negro Musicians.

William Dawson
Upon her high school graduation, Bonds became one of the few black students at Northwestern University. Her song "Sea-Ghost" won a Wanamaker Award in 1932; two years later, at the age of 21, she left Northwestern with a bachelor's and master's degree, both in music. She opened a short-lived school, the Allied Arts Academy, at which she taught art, music, and ballet. She performed as a pianist with numerous local organizations, appearing in 1933 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and performing Florence Price's piano concerto with the Women's Symphony Orchestra of Chicago the following year. In 1939 she moved to New York City; there, she edited music for a living and collaborated on several popular songs. That same year, an adaptation of "Peach Tree Street" was heard in Gone With the Wind. In 1940 Bonds married a probation officer named Lawrence Richardson; the couple later had a daughter.
While living in New York, Bonds began further study in piano and composition at the Juilliard School; she also began to study composition privately with Roy Harris and Emerson Harper. She also attempted to gain lessons with Nadia Boulanger, who upon looking at her work said that she needed no further study and refused to teach her. The work that Bonds showed Boulanger was The Negro Speaks of Rivers, a setting for voice and piano of a poem by Langston Hughes. Hughes and Bonds were great friends, and she set much of his work to music.

Nadia Boulanger
Bonds continued to take in piano students after her marriage, and while she was still a student. She performed, too, gaining work with major orchestras and forming a piano duo with Gerald Cook. At the same time, she formed the Margaret Bonds Chamber Society, a group of black musicians which performed mainly the work of black classical composers. Bonds lived in Harlem, and worked on many music projects in the neighborhood. She helped to establish a Cultural Community Center, and served as the minister of music at a church in the area.

Langston Hughes
Among Bonds' works from the 1950s is The Ballad of the Brown King, a large-scale work originally for voice and piano, but later revised for chorus, soloists, and orchestra. To a text by Hughes, the work tells the story of the Three Wise Men, focusing primarily on Balthazar, the so-called "brown king." A large work in nine movements, the piece combines elements of various black musical traditions, such as jazz, blues, calypso, and spirituals. The piece was first performed in December 1954 in New York. Bonds was writing other works during this period of her career, as well; her Three Dream Portraits for voice and piano, again setting Hughes' poetry, were published in 1959; her D Minor Mass for chorus and organ was first performed in the same year.
Another work based on a text by Langston Hughes was first performed in February 2018 in Washington, DC by the Georgetown University Concert Choir. Entitled "Simon Bore the Cross," it is a cantata for piano and voice, and is based on the spiritual "He Never Said a Mumblin' Word."

Margaret Bonds and Eartha Kitt

As an outgrowth of her compositions for voice, Bonds later became active in the theater, serving as music director for numerous productions and writing two ballets. She also wrote several music-theater works, including Shakespeare in Harlem to a libretto by Hughes; this premiered in 1959. In 1965, at the time of the Freedom March on Montgomery, Alabama, Bonds wrote Montgomery Variations for orchestra, dedicating it to Martin Luther King, Jr.. Two years later, she moved to Los Angeles, teaching music at the Los Angeles Inner City Institute and at the Inner City Cultural Center. Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic premiered her Credo for chorus and orchestra in 1972. Bonds died unexpectedly a few months later, shortly after her 59th birthday.

[From Wikipedia.]

Enjoy Samantha Ege's performance of Margaret Bonds' Troubled Water:


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