Harlem’s Margaret Bonds, composer, pianist, arranger, teacher and one of the first black female composers, 1910-1970
Margaret Allison Bonds, March 3, 1913 – April 26, 1972, was a Harlem composer, pianist, arranger and teacher.
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One of the first black female composers and performers to achieve recognition in the United States, she is best remembered today for her popular arrangements of African-American spirituals and her frequent collaborations with Langston Hughes.
Family history and life
Margaret Jeanette Allison Majors was born on March 3, 1913 in Chicago, Illinois. Her father, Monroe Alpheus Majors, was an active force in the civil rights movement as a physician and writer.
His work included founding a medical association for black physicians who were denied membership in the American Medical Association on the basis of race.
As an author, Majors is known for her book, Noted Negro Women: Their Triumphs and Activities, 1893, and for her work as editor of several African-American newspapers.
His mother, Estelle C. Bonds, was a church musician and a member of the National Association of Negro Musicians. She died in 1957.
Margaret was close to both her parents; their influence in her life is undoubtedly evident in her own work as a musician.
In 1940 Margaret Bonds married Lawrence Richardson, 1911-1990, a probation officer, after moving to New York in 1939. The couple went on to have a daughter, Djane Richardson, 1946-2011.
When Bonds died on April 26, 1972, in Los Angeles, California, she was survived by her husband, daughter, and sister.
Childhood and background
In 1917, when she was four, Margaret’s parents divorced. She grew up in her mother’s household and was given her mother’s maiden name, Bonds.
Bonds grew up in a home visited by many of the era’s leading black writers, artists, and musicians; among the house guests were sopranos Abbie Mitchell and Lillian Evanti, and composers Florence Price and Will Marion Cook, all of whom were to become influential to his future musical studies and career.
Bonds showed an early aptitude for composition, writing his first work, Marquette Street Blues, at the age of five.
Her early musical studies were with her mother, who taught Margaret piano lessons at home.
Bonds worked as an accompanist for dances and singers at various shows and supper clubs around Chicago; she also copied parts of music for other composers.
In high school, Bonds studied piano and composition with Florence Price and William Dawson.
In 1929, at the age of 16, Bonds began her studies at Northwestern University, where she earned both her Bachelor of Music (1933) and Master of Music (1934) degrees in piano and composition.
Bonds was one of the few black students at Northwestern University; the environment was hostile, racist and almost unbearable.
Although she was allowed to study there, she was not allowed to reside on campus. Margaret recalls, in an interview with James Hatch:
I was in this prejudiced university, this terribly prejudiced place…. I was looking in the basement of the Evanston Public Library where they had the poetry. I came in contact with this wonderful poem, “The Negro speaks of the rivers”, and I’m sure it reinforced my sense of security. Because in this poem he talks about how big the black man is. And if I had any apprehensions, which I should have – here you’re in a setup where restaurants won’t serve you and you’re going to college, you’re sacrificing yourself, you’re trying to finish your education – and I know this poem helped save me.
Bonds moved to New York after graduating from Northwestern University. There she attended the prestigious Juilliard School of Music and studied composition with Roy Harris, Robert Starer and Emerson Harper, and piano with Djane Herz. She also studied with Walter Gossett.
She took lessons with Nadia Boulanger, who, looking at her work, said she didn’t need any further studies and refused to teach her.
However, it is inconclusive that Boulanger truly believed Bonds did not need further instruction or was acting from a position of racial bias.
The work Boulanger is referring to is The Negro Speaks of Rivers, a setting for voice and piano of the poem of the same title by Langston Hughes – the very poem that brought Bonds such solace during his years at Northwestern University. .
Langston Hughes (1901-1967) was a prolific African-American poet and writer. Hughes and Bonds became great friends after meeting in person in 1936, and she put much of her work to music.
On May 22, 1952, Langston (poet), Bonds (pianist) and Daniel Andrews (baritone) collaborated on a project, “An Evening of Music and Poetry in Negro Life”, performing at Community Church.
This project took place just months after Bond’s first solo performance at New York City Hall on February 7, 1952.
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Always a good friend, Hughes sent Bonds a Western Union telegram the afternoon of his performance, telling him how much he wanted to be there and sending him his best wishes.
Bonds has written several works of musical theatre. In 1959, she set Shakespeare in Harlem, a libretto by Hughes, to music. It premiered in 1960 at the 41st Street Theatre. Other collaborations include “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, “Songs of the Seasons”, and “Three Dream Portraits”.
Another work based on a text by Langston Hughes premiered in February 2018 in Washington, DC, by the Georgetown University Concert Choir under the direction of Frederick Binkholder. Entitled “Simon Bore the Cross”, it is a cantata for piano and voice, based on the witty “He Never Said a Mumblin’ Word”.
The death of Langston Hughes in 1967 was difficult for Bonds. Subsequently, she left her husband and daughter to move from New York to Los Angeles where she remained until her death on April 26, 1972.
Bond was active in her career throughout her studies at Northwestern University. In 1932, Bond’s composition Sea Ghost won the prestigious Wanamaker Foundation National Prize, bringing it to public attention.
On June 15, 1933, Bond performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra—the first black person in history to do so—during its Century of Progress series (Concertino for piano and orchestra by John Alden Carpenter).
She would return in 1934 to perform the Piano Concerto in D minor composed by former professor Florence Price.
After graduating, Bond continued to teach, compose, and perform in Chicago. Two of her notable students were Ned Rorem and Gerald Cook, with whom she performed piano duets in later years.
In 1936, she opened the Allied Arts Academy where she taught art, music and ballet.
That same year, an adaptation of “Peach Tree Street” appeared in Gone with the Wind.
In 1939, she moved to Harlem, New York, where she published music for a living and collaborated on several popular songs.
She made her solo debut at City Hall on February 7, 1952. Around the same time, she formed the Margaret Bonds Chamber Society, a group of black musicians who performed primarily the work of black classical composers. Bonds lived in Harlem and worked on many musical projects in the neighborhood.
She helped establish a cultural community center and served as a music minister at a local church.
Among Bonds’ works of the 1950s is The Ballad of the Brown King, a large-scale work which premiered in December 1954 in New York City. It tells the story of the Magi, focusing primarily on Balthazar, the so-called “Brown King”.
It was originally written for voice and piano, but later revised for choir, soloists and orchestra, and finally televised by CBS in 1960.
A large work in nine movements, the piece combines elements from various black musical traditions, such as jazz, blues, calypso and spirituals.
Bonds was writing other works during this period of his career: Three Dream Portraits for voice and piano, again featuring Hughes’ poetry, were published in 1959. D Minor Mass for choir and organ was performed for the first time the same year.
As a continuation of her compositions for voice, Bonds later became active in the theater, serving as musical director for numerous productions and writing two ballets.
In 1964 Bonds wrote Montgomery Variations for Orchestra, a set of seven programmatic variations on the spiritual “I want Jesus to walk with me”. Bonds wrote a program for the job which explains that it centered on the decision of black Southerners to no longer accept the segregationist policies of the Jim Crow South, focusing on the Montgomery bus boycotts and the bombing. 1963 bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Bonds shared the completed work with Ned Rorem, a close friend and former student, in 1964. She ultimately dedicated the work to Martin Luther King Jr.
Two years later, she moved to Los Angeles, teaching music at the Los Angeles Inner City Institute and the Inner City Cultural Center. Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic premiered his Creed for Chorus and Orchestra in 1972. Bonds died unexpectedly a few months later, shortly after her 59th birthday.
Margaret Bonds has done a lot to promote the music of black musicians. His own compositions and lyrics address the racial issues of the time.
The performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was a historic moment, marking the first time a black artist had performed with them as a soloist. Bonds linked his father’s political activism to his mother’s sense of musicality.
Additionally, many well-known arrangements of African-American spirituals (He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands) have been created by Bonds.