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Composers

Margaret Bonds

(1913- 1972)

Margaret Bonds (1913-1972) was born in Chicago to a prominent and creative family; her mother Estella was highly musical, moving in cultivated artistic circles within the black community. She was lifelong friends with Langston Hughes, who wrote the libretto for her cantata The Ballad of the Brown King.

Bonds studied with Florence Price and William Dawson in high school before going to Northwestern University, where she gained her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees by the age of 21. She opened a dance school in the 1930s but it failed because of the Great Depression. Her song ‘Sea Ghost’ brought her to public attention by winning the Wanamaker prize in 1932; the following year she was the first African American soloist to appear with the Chicago SO, playing Florence Price’s Piano Concerto. She moved to New York in 1939. She studied piano and composition at Juilliard. In 1940, she married Lawrence Richardson, a probation officer, and had one daughter. When she showed her music to Nadia Boulanger, the distinguished teacher acknowledged that this young composer ‘had something’. She was extremely active in the New York music scene during the 1930s, as a pianist, educator, music director and organiser of a chamber music society to foster the work of black musicians and composers.

Bonds, a deeply religious person, fused recognisably black idioms with the complexities of modernism in her music. She remained uncompromising, true to her artistic vision and ethnic identity. Her output included art songs, choral works, orchestral works, piano pieces and popular songs. The music of Harry T. Burleigh was an important influence. Teaching was an extremely important part of her portfolio (her students included Ned Rorem), and she developed a programme to teach music literacy. She gained serious recognition and reward during her lifetime, for example, shortly before her death in 1972, Zubin Mehta and the LA Symphony Orchestra gave the premiere of part of her Credo for chorus and orchestra.

Vocal music is central to Bonds’s output, including art song, popular song and spirituals, as well as much music for musical theatre. In total, she wrote 42 songs, however not all are available as scores or recordings at the time of writing. Her style is rooted in tonality but her approach to modulation and texture is adventurous; her piano parts, in particular, show great independence.

‘To a Brown Girl, Dead’ (1933, rev. 1956) is an important setting of Countee Cullen. A German translation of the text was set by Alexander Zemlinsky in his Symphonische Gesänge. We are not told why the girl is dead, but the tragedy of being buried by her mother is captured exquisitely in Bonds’s heavy chords.

Bonds wrote several sets of songs which can be easily incorporated into programmes, such as the 1959 Three Dream Portraits. The 1959 song ‘The Pasture’ is deliberately guileless. ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ is a substantial song, a profoundly moving reflection on the poet’s deep origins set initially to a relentless, plodding texture (evoking Africa) before moving temporarily to a jaunty texture to evoke the Southern USA. The 1955 cycle Songs of the Season is especially beautiful. These four settings of texts by Langston Hughes show Bonds’s superb ability to slip seamlessly between different idioms, forging an entirely original voice. ‘Poeme d’automne’ is surely one of her finest songs, while ‘Summer Storm’ has jazzy appeal.

© Natasha Loges, 2022

Worked with the following poets texts