Margaret Bonds, A Forgotten Musical Genius
Margaret Bonds was a pioneering figure of the twentieth century, working with several major orchestras and winning awards for her music. Bonds was born in Chicago, IL, on March 3, 1913. Her parents, Dr. Monroe Majors, Her father, a physician and activist, and Estella C. Bonds, Was church musician. Four years after her birth, her parents separated, leaving young Bonds to be raised by her mother. Margaret's love of music began at an early age under the direction of her mother. Bonds completed her first composition at the age of five, Marquette Street Blues. Bonds was the first African American to receive a bachelor's and master's degrees in music from Northwestern University in 1933 and 1934. After completing her degrees, she began writing pieces for the Glenn Miller Orchestra and regularly performing on the radio. In 1936, after many years of professional success, Bonds began to nourish the next generation of African American musicians by founding the Allied Arts Academy, an institution for talented African American children in Chicago.
In 1939, Bonds relocated from the Midwest to New York City, where she worked as an editor for the Clarence Williams Publishing House. After moving to New York City, Bonds continued her composition studies at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music and studied composition. In New York, she met her husband William Richardson, a probation officer. The two were married in 1940, and they would have one child together, Djane Richardson. Bonds met Langston Hughes in 1936, and two became quick friends, collaborating on several projects, the first of many being "An Evening of Music and Poetry in Negro Life," performing at Community Church. The pair would collaborate on: "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," "Songs of the Seasons," and "Three Dream Portraits," and Shakespeare in Harlem.
Bonds had a prolific composing and performing career. On February 7, 1952, she debuted as a soloist at Town Hall, and around that same time, she formed the Margaret Bonds Chamber Society, a group of Black musicians dedicated to performing the works of Black classical composers. In the 1950s and 60s, she composed large-scale works such as The Ballad of the Brown King, which premiered on CBS. It tells the story of three wise men, focusing primarily on Balthazar, the "brown king," D Minor Mass for chorus and organ. She also composed two ballets. Bonds later became active in the theater, serving as music director for numerous productions. In 1964, Bonds wrote Montgomery Variations for orchestra, which was later dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. The work was a set of seven programmatic variations on the spiritual "I Want Jesus to Walk with Me." The piece centered around Southern Blacks' seeking civil rights refuting segregationist policies of the Jim Crow Era. The pieces focused on the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Many of Bond's works included African American traditional music elements, including jazz, blues, calypso, and spirituals. Often these genres are referred to as Black classical music.
In 1967 Langston Hughes passed away, which was quite difficult for Bonds, and may have been the reason for her moving from New York to Los Angeles the same year.
After relocating to Los Angeles, she taught music at the Los Angeles Inner City Institute and inner City Cultural Center. In 1972 Bonds composed one final piece, a Credo for chorus and orchestra, which was premiered by Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She passed away that same year from unknown reasons. Bonds left a lasting legacy. She was a highly accomplished musician and helped break down racial barriers in the music industry. She also helped to establish the black classical tradition in the United States. Her music is still enjoyed and appreciated by audiences today. We can learn from her life and career the importance of perseverance in the face of adversity—that it is possible to achieve great things even when faced with obstacles. Margaret Bonds showed us that our differences should be celebrated, not feared.