Bonds, Margaret 1913–1972
Margaret Bonds 1913–1972
American performers of all ethnic backgrounds often sing arrangements of African-American spirituals, but few singers stop to think about the artists who created those arrangements. Margaret Bonds, whose version of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” is among the most frequently performed of all spiritual arrangements, was a composer who shaped American musical life to a degree that has not been fully appreciated. Beginning her career in a time when few African-American women could aspire to join the music profession, Bonds gained acclaim in both the classical and popular music fields. She wrote not only arrangements for spirituals, but also original solo songs, classical instrumental works, and film music.
Margaret Allison Bonds was born in Chicago on March 3, 1913. Her father was a physician. Her mother, whose maiden name Bonds used throughout her career, was an organist and music teacher who often opened her home to the black musical luminaries of the day, including the orchestra leader and musical theater composer Will Marion Cook, and the pioneering classical composer and pianist Florence B. Price. Margaret Bonds got an early start in music, finishing her first composition at age five. In high school she studied with Price and with another giant of early African-American concert music, the composer and conductor William Dawson.
It didn’t take Bonds long after graduating from high school to make her mark on the classical musical world. Not yet 20 years old, she won the national-level Wanamaker Foundation Prize for her composition “Sea Ghost,” a song for voice and piano. At the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, she played the piano part in Price’s Concerto in F Minor for piano and orchestra, and she became the first African-American soloist to appear with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Price’s piece was the first orchestral work by an African-American woman that the orchestra had ever performed). Bonds went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from Northwestern University in 1933 and 1934.
Bonds did virtually all there was to do in the musical world of 1930s Chicago. She gave piano performances with orchestras and in solo concerts, championing the works of innovative white composers such as John Alden Carpenter in addition to those of Price and other African Americans. She worked as an accompanist for various vocalists, and opened a music and dance school called the Allied Arts Academy, aimed at black Chicago schoolchildren. She began to attract serious students of her own to her studio on South Wabash Street, including the soon-to-be-famous white composer Ned Rorem. “Margaret, ten years older than I, played with the authority of a professional, an authority I’d never heard in a living room, an authority stemming from the fact that she too was a composer and thus approached all music from the inside, an authority that was contagious,” Rorem wrote in his memoir Knowing When to Stop.
On top of all these activities, Bonds continued to compose. Among her works in the late 1930s was an
At a Glance…
Born on March 3, 1913, in Chicago, IL; died on April 26, 1972, in Los Angeles, CA; daughter of Monroe Alpheus Majors (a physician) and Estelle C. Bonds (an organist); married Lawrence Richardson, 1940; children: one daughter. Education: Studied piano and composition with Florence B. Price and William L. Dawson; Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, BM, 1933, MM, 1934; studied composition at Juilliard School of Music, 1940s.
Career: Composer; pianist; became first black soloist to appear with Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 1933; founded Allied Arts Academy, 1930s; toured widely as soloist; gave music lessons, Chicago, 1930s; composed musical theater works and popular songs, late 1930s and early 1940s; formed musical duo, Bonds & Cook, which toured and performed on WNYC radio, 1944; East Side Settlement House and Stage of Youth, New York, music director; collaborated with Langston Hughes on classical vocal works, 1940s and 1950s; composed Montgomery Variations for Orchestra, 1965; arranged African-American spirituals, often in response to commissions from soprano Leontyne Price, 1960s.
Selected awards: Wanamaker Prize, for “Sea Ghost;” 1932; awards from American Society for Composers, Authors & Performers, National Association of Negro Musicians, and Northwestern University Alumni Association.
African-American musical-theatrical version of Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, titled Romey and Julie, which was produced under the auspices of the Negro Theatre Project of the federal Works Progress Administration. The piece may have influenced later black-oriented adaptations of classic European works, such as the mid-1950s operatic reworking of Carmen Jones. But Bonds hungered for the challenges she could find only in New York City, the undisputed center of American classical music, and she moved there in 1939.
Like William Grant Still and other African-American composers, Bonds soon discovered that classical music at the time was a virtually all-white preserve, in terms of the bread-and-butter issues of commissions, performances, and academic employment, and she found it easier to make a living in the world of popular music. She found a job as an editor at a music publishing firm owned by Clarence Williams, a survivor of the New Orleans jazz scene, and also wrote the music for a number of popular songs. Several of her songs became nationally known; “Peachtree Street,” co-written with longtime “Fats” Waller collaborator Andy Razaf, was a hit in 1939, and Bonds’s 1941 composition “Spring Will Be So Sad (When She Comes This Year)” became an early example of a song that touched on the common World War II-era theme of separation.
Bonds married Lawrence Richardson in 1940 (the couple had one daughter), and she began to devote the proceeds from her popular music activities to the furthering of her education in the classical realm. Under a Rosenwald fellowship she enrolled in the graduate division of the Juilliard School of Music in New York City, studying composition under Roy Harris, one of the top American symphonists of the day, and she continued to study piano. During World War II Bonds was part of a duo-piano team called Bonds & Cook, that had its own slot for an entire season on radio station WNYC, and she continued to perform widely as a soloist.
From the 1940s onward, however, the primary focus of Bonds’s musical efforts was her own compositional career. Her 1941 setting of Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” inaugurated a long series of Hughes-inspired works, including the widely praised cycle of “Three Dream Portraits,” published by G. Ricordi in 1959. In those songs (“Minstrel Man,” “Dream Variation,” and “I, Too”) Bonds employed the various musical languages she had mastered—traditional classical styles, jazz, and pop—in order to explore the complex inner lives of the poetic protagonists Hughes created. “This mini-cycle set to the uncompromising, intense poetry of Langston Hughes is so good that I’m surprised it isn’t performed more often,” noted an American Record Guide review of a 1994 recording of the set.
Bonds also collaborated directly with Hughes on the 1954 cantata The Ballad of the Brown King, written for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, a work that was widely performed in black churches with large musical forces at their disposal. They also worked together on several other pieces, including a theatrical work titled Shakespeare in Harlem. Bonds also composed a variety of instrumental music, much of which is “programmatic”—illustrative of external events or narratives. Her 1965 Montgomery Variations for orchestra was written during the era of civil rights marches in the South, and was dedicated to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “Troubled Water,” written in 1967, was a widely performed piano piece based on the spiritual “Wade in the Water.”
In the words of music historian Eileen Southern, Bonds “wrote in a neoromantic style that was subtly infused with jazz and Negro folksong elements.” Though essentially a conservative in classical music terms, she was well ahead of her time in infusing jazz harmonies and rhythms into classical forms. The spiritual arrangements for which she was noted came mostly in the 1960s, several of them commissioned by African-American soprano Leontyne Price. In addition to “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” they included “Dry Bones,” “Little David, Play On Your Harp,” “Lord, I Just Can’t Keep from Cryin’,” and many others. These were augmented by several classical religious works, including the Mass in D Minor for chorus and orchestra in 1959, and Credo for baritone, chorus, and orchestra in 1972, her last major work.
Bonds continued her work on the popular side of the musical divide as well, serving as music director for several New York City theaters (including the East Side Settlement House and the Stage of Youth) before moving to Los Angeles in the 1960s. She continued to be associated with theaters in Los Angeles, including the Inner City Repertory Theater, and she composed music for several films. Bonds died in Los Angeles on April 26, 1972. A month after her death her Credo was performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of conductor Zubin Mehta.
“Sea Ghost” (classical song), 1934.
Romey and Julie (musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet), late 1930s.
(With Andy Razaf) “Peachtree Street” (popular song), 1939.
“Spring Will Be So Sad (When She Comes This Year)” (popular song), 1941.
(Text by Langston Hughes) “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (classical song), 1941.
(Text by Langston Hughes) The Ballad of the Brown King (for soloists, chorus, and orchestra), 1954.
(Text by Langston Hughes) Three Dream Portraits (classical song cycle), 1959.
Montgomery Variations (for orchestra), 1965.
Credo in D Minor (for baritone, chorus, and orchestra), 1972.
“He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and other African-American spiritual arrangements, mostly 1950s and 1960s.
Rorem, Ned, Knowing When to Stop, Simon & Schuster, 1994.
Sadie, Stanley, ed., New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., Macmillan, 2001.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed., Notable Black American Women, Book 1, Gale, 1992.
Southern, Eileen, Music of Black Americans, 3rd ed., Norton, 1997.
American Music, Spring 1998, p. 116.
American Record Guide, September-October 1994, p. 258.
“Margaret Bonds,” African American Art Song Alliance, www.uni.edu/taylord/bonds.bio.html (March 13, 2003).
“Margaret Bonds,” All Classical Guide, www.allclas-sical.com (March 14, 2003).
—James M. Manheim
March 3, 1913
April 27, 1972
The composer and pianist Margaret Allison Bonds was born in Chicago. She showed musical promise early, composing and performing as a child. Her early piano and composition teachers were T. Theodore Taylor, Florence Price, and William Levi Dawson. She received her B.M. and M.M. degrees from Northwestern University in 1933 and 1934, respectively. In 1939 she moved to New York and attended the graduate school of the Juilliard School of Music, where she studied with Djane Herz, Roy Harris, and Robert Starer.
During the 1930s Bonds was active as a concert pianist and accompanist. In 1933 she became the first black soloist to appear with the Chicago Symphony in a performance of Florence Price's Piano Concerto in One Movement. During this time she founded the Allied Arts Academy, a school for talented black children, in Chicago. In New York she worked as an editor for the Clarence Williams publishing house. After moving to Los Angeles in the 1960s, she became director for the Inner City Repertory Theatre. She wrote art songs, popular songs, piano music, arrangements of spirituals, orchestral and choral works, and music for the stage. Her best known works include the cantata Ballad of the Brown King (1961, text by Langston Hughes) and the art songs "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" (1946, text by Hughes) and "Three Dream Portraits" (1959, text by Hughes). Representing the second generation of African-American composers, Bonds was strongly influenced by modern music, including jazz and blues idioms.
See also Hughes, Langston
Bonds, Margaret. "A Reminiscence." In International Library of Negro Life and History, Vol. 2: The Negro in Music and Art, compiled and edited by Lindsay Patterson. New York: Publishers' Company, 1966.
Brown, Rae Linda. "Florence B. Price and Margaret Bonds: The Chicago Years." Black Music Research Bulletin 12, no. 2 (Fall 1990): 11–13.
rae linda brown (1996)