Black Composers Matter : Margaret Bonds

Margaret Bonds
(March 3, 1913 – April 26, 1972)

Margaret Bonds

Margaret Bonds was born in Chicago, Illinois. She began musical studies at an early age with her mother, whose home in New York City became a gathering place for Black writers, artists and musicians such as Will Marion Cook, Lillian Evanti, and Florence Price. Young Margaret showed musical promise early and composed her first first work, Marquette Street Blues, at the age of five.

In high school, Bonds studied piano and composition with Florence Price and William Dawson. She received her Bachelor and Master of Music degrees from Northwestern University in 1933 and 1934. In 1936, she founded the Allied Arts Academy to create opportunities for African American children in Chicago. She moved to New York in 1939, where she attended the Julliard School of Music and became involved in the Harlem Renaissance and civil rights movement, championing and advocating for fellow African American artists.

During the 1930s, Bonds was active as a concert pianist and accompanist. In 1933, she became the first Black soloist to perform with the Chicago Symphony in a performance of Florence Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement.

Bonds frequently collaborated with writer, poet and activist Langston Hughes including settings of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1946 text by Hughes) and “Three Dream Portraits” (1959 text by Hughes).

Her most frequently performed work is a cantata called The Ballad of the Brown King, which was first performed in 1954. It also features Hughes’ poetry and tells the story of the Three Wise Men from the perspective of the African king, Balthazar. The composition includes a combination of European, Jazz and Calypso four-part hymn and gospel music.

Bonds also composed art songs, popular songs, piano music, ballets, music for the stage, orchestral music, choral music and arrangements of spirituals. Some of her arrangements of spirituals were commissioned and recorded by Leontyne Price during the 1960s.

Ballad of the Brown King

If you’d like to learn more about Margaret Bonds, here are some items from the Music Library’s collection:

* The Ballad of the Brown King and Selected Songs (CD)

* Watch and Pray: Spirituals and Art Songs by African American Women Composers (CD)

* Art Songs and Spirituals by African American Women Composers (Score)

* Soulscapes: Piano Music by African American Women (CD)

* Bonds, Margaret (Reference entry from Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History : The Black Experience in the Americas available online)

And here is an NPR Music piece on Bonds from 2013 in celebration of her centennial:

Black Composers Matter