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Bonds, Margaret Jeannette Allison

Bonds, Margaret Jeannette Allison (3 Mar. 1913-26 Apr. 1972),
composer, pianist, and teacher, was born in Chicago, Illinois,
the daughter of Dr. Monroe Alpheus Majors, a pioneering black
physician, medical researcher, and author, and Estelle C. Bonds,
a music teacher and organist. Although legally born Majors, she
used her mother's maiden name (Bonds) in her youth and throughout
her professional life. She grew up in intellectually stimulating
surroundings; her mother held Sunday afternoon salons at which
young black Chicago musicians, writers, and artists gathered
and where visiting musicians and artists were always welcomed.
Bonds first displayed musical talent in her piano composition
"Marquette Street Blues," written at the age of five. She then
began studying piano with local teachers and by the time she
was in high school was taking lessons in piano and composition
with Florence B. Price and William Dawson, two of the first black
American symphonic composers, who were both professionally active
in Chicago. Bonds remarked that through her mother's circle she
had "actual contact with all the living composers of African
descent." As a young girl she served as the pianist at the Berean
Baptist Church, where her mother was organist. One of several
black Chicago churches that fostered performances of classical
music, Berean Baptist was the home of a black community orchestra
led by Harrison Farrell.

When Bonds was a teenager, singer Abbie Mitchell introduced
her to the European art song and to songs by American black composers,
especially those of Henry T. Burleigh. At about the same time
Bonds ran across the first published poem of Langston Hughes,
"The Negro Speaks of Rivers," which made a great impact on her
and which she later set to music. She set many of his texts and
collaborated with him in theater works, such as Shakespeare in Harlem (1959).

Bonds studied with Emily Boettscher Bogue at Northwestern University,
where she received B.M. and M.M. degrees (1933, 1934). While
still a student, she received the Wanamaker Foundation Prize
for her song "Sea Ghost" (1932). In 1933 she became the first
black American soloist to perform with the Chicago Symphony,
playing John Alden Carpenter's Concertino. She was also the soloist
in a performance of Florence Price's Piano Concerto at the 1933
World's Fair. During the 1930s she performed frequently in the
United States and Canada, and she also founded and taught at
the Allied Arts Academy in Chicago, an institution devoted to
the teaching of ballet and music to black children.

In 1939 Bonds moved to New York City, where she became more
active as a composer and arranger and where she served as an
editor in the Clarence Williams music publishing firm. For a
time she composed pop music; her most famous hits were collaborations--with
Andy Razafar for "Peachtree Street" (1939) and with Hal Dickinson
for "Spring Will Be So Sad" (1940). Her popular songs were recorded
by Glenn Miller, Charley Spivak, and Woody Hermann. In New York
she studied both piano (with Djane Herz) and composition (with
Robert Starer) at the Juilliard School of Music. She also studied
composition with Roy Harris. She made her Town Hall debut as
a pianist in 1952. Bonds taught at the American Music Wing in
New York and was music director for such theaters as the East
Side Settlement House, the White Barn Theater, and the Stage
of Youth. She promoted work of black American musicians and composers
by organizing a chamber music society and establishing a sight-singing
program at Harlem's Mount Calvary Baptist Church. She married
Lawrence Richardson in 1940, and the couple had one child. In
1968 she moved to Los Angeles, where she taught at the Inner
City Institute and Repertory Theater and worked as an arranger
for the Los Angeles Jubilee Singers.

John Lovell, Jr., in Black Song: The Forge and the Flame (1972),
described Bonds as one of the most significant twentieth-century
arrangers of traditional spirituals, along with Burleigh and
Will Marion Cook, all of whose arrangements cultivated widespread
appreciation of the repertory. She arranged spirituals throughout
her career, many for solo voice and piano, and some as choral
pieces; singer Leontyne Price commissioned and recorded Bonds's
arrangement of "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands." Other
compositions of Bonds's, such as the piano piece Troubled Water
(1967, also set later for cello and piano), were often strongly
steeped in the spiritual idiom.

Bonds's forty-two art songs include "The Pasture" (1958) and
"Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening" (1963), both set to
texts of Robert Frost, and, perhaps her best-known songs, "Three
Dream Portraits" (1959) and "To a Brown Girl, Dead" (1956), both
settings of Langston Hughes poems. Her major choral works include
the Ballad of the Brown King (1954, to text by Hughes), which
has been performed annually in many black churches, and a Mass
in D Minor for chorus and orchestra or organ (1959). The Montgomery
Variations, dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr. and composed
at the time of the march on Montgomery in 1965, was her most
successful orchestral piece. Her last work, Credo for baritone,
chorus and orchestra (text by W. E. B. Du Bois), was performed
the month after her death by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted
by Zubin Mehta. She died in Los Angeles.

Bonds was recognized during her lifetime with many commissions
and awards, including a Distinguished Alumna Award from Northwestern
University (1967). Although much of her music is still in manuscript,
there is a renewed interest in making it more available for performance,
especially her piano music and songs. However, some of her most
significant works were her modern Shakespearean musical theater
works (Shakespeare in Harlem and Romey and Julie) as well as
other dramatic musicals and ballets, which brought her music
to a broad audience. These important works were not published,
however, and the manuscripts remain in the hands of the family.
Her close friendship and collaboration with Langston Hughes,
as well as her many settings of his poems (from "The Negro Speaks
of Rivers" to the 1964 choral work "Fields of Wonder") resulted
in a very significant body of work that exemplifies the close
mutual interaction of poet and composer in expressing the Afro-American
ethnic identity. Bonds's many programmatic works for piano and
for orchestra also speak of the black experience through their
use of spiritual materials, jazz harmonies and rhythms, and social
themes. Her music fuses European musical Romanticism with the
varied strands of her Afro-American heritage to form a distinctive
musical corpus, although since her death access to her most extended
works has been limited.


Bonds's papers and manuscripts are owned and held by her daughter,
Djane Richardson, in New York. Bonds's own account of her musical
development is in "A Reminiscence," International Library of
Negro Life and History: The Negro in Music and Art (1967), pp.
190-93. Lists of her works are found in Alice Tischler, Fifteen
Black American Composers with a Bibliography of Their Works (1981),
and in the New Grove Dictionary of American Music (1986). Her
mass is discussed by Andre Jerome Thomas in "A Study of the Selected
Masses of Twentieth-Century Black Composers: Margaret Bonds,
Robert Ray, George Walker, and David Baker" (D.M.A. diss., Univ.
of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, 1983). A biographical study and
analysis of some of Bonds's music is found in Mildred D. Green,
Black Women Composers: A Genesis (1983). Bonds's collaboration
with Langston Hughes is covered in F. Berry, Langston Hughes:
Before and Beyond Harlem (1983). The Chicago period of her life
is covered in Rae Linda Brown, "Florence B. Price and Margaret
Bonds: The Chicago Years," Black Music Research Bulletin 12,
no. 2 (1990): 11-14, and Helen Walker-Hill, "Black Women Composers
in Chicago: Then and Now," Black Music Research Journal 12 (Spring
1992): 1-23. Walker-Hill's anthology Black Women Composers: A
Century of Piano Music (1893-1990) (1992) includes music by Bonds.
Two 1980s recordings include her "Three Dream Portraits": Art
Songs by Black American Composers (Univ. of Michigan, 1981) and
Focus on Women in the Arts: Women in Song (Smith College, 1982).
Obituaries are in the New York Times, 29 Apr. 1972; Variety,
10 May 1972; Jet, 18 May 1972, Chicago Defender, 13 Jan. 1973,
and The Black Perspective in Music 1 (1973): 197.

Barbara G. Jackson,

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Barbara G. Jackson, . "Bonds, Margaret Jeannette Allison";;
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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