History Hunt: Margaret Allison Bonds

When I was researching this week’s featured musician for History Hunt, I came across this sentence:

One of the first black composers and performers to gain recognition in the United States, she is best remembered today for her frequent collaborations with Langston Hughes.

(Source: Wikipedia)

And that was what made me decide to write about Margaret Allison Bonds for this week’s History Hunt. It sounds to me as if it’s time to shine a spotlight on her alone!

Margaret Allison Bonds was born Margaret Jeannette Allison Majors on March 3, 1913 in Chicago, Illinois. Her mother was a musician, as was her grandmother, and her father was a doctor. Though her parents divorced when she was only four, Bonds had a good relationship with both her parents throughout her life.

Her mother and grandmother were the ones to raise her, and it was after her parents’ divorce that Margaret Majors became Margaret Bonds, “Bonds” being her mother’s name before marriage. Right from the beginning, her mother recognised Bonds’ musical talent–she started giving Bonds piano lessons when Bonds was only three years old. By the time Bonds was five, not only had she moved on to study with another piano teacher thanks to winning a scholarship, but she had written her first piece of music! It was called “The Marquette Road Blues,” and it was only the first of many works Bonds would compose.

Interestingly enough, Bonds’ mother and grandmother disagreed about what Bonds should do when she grew up. Her mother thought she ought to be a pianist like her. Her grandmother, however, thought she ought to be a composer. As it turns out, they both got their wish–Bonds became both a pianist and a composer!

It certainly helped Bonds on her path that, throughout her childhood, she met many famous African-American musicians, composers, and writers. This was thanks to her mother, who frequently hosted gatherings at their home. She was able to learn from these more experienced artists and grow as in her abilities–though sometimes she was more interested in having fun with one of her friends than paying attention!

When Bonds was eight, she started winning scholarships, from both the Chicago Musical College and the Coleridge-Taylor Music School. (The second school, interestingly enough, was named after previous History Hunt composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor!) She used her scholarship from the Coleridge-Taylor Music School to study piano; five years later, she began learning how to compose from another teacher.

Bonds was only sixteen when she won a scholarship and was accepted at Northwestern University. Unfortunately, at this time, segregation was ongoing in the United States–laws that made it illegal for Black people and white people to do things like go to the same schools, public places, live in the same neighbourhoods, and generally participate in daily life together. Even though Bonds was studying at Northwestern University, she wasn’t allowed to live in any of the campus housing or even use the university pool. The constant racism she faced was extremely discouraging, but she fought on, kept winning prizes, and graduated from the university with first a Bachelor of Music and then, the very next year, a Master of Music.

The same year she received her Master of Music, she played at the Chicago World Fair with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra–the first Black person to ever perform with that orchestra. She received positive reviews from even white critics, and from then on, she performed all over Chicago. She composed her first and only operetta (a children’s story called Winter Night’s Dream), as well as a musical theatre version of Romeo and Juliet, called Romey and Julie.

She also taught, beginning while she was still in university, and at least one of her students was white. That was something very rare indeed during segregation in the United States, but Bonds’ genius was undeniable. And, when she was only twenty-four, she started a school for music, ballet, and art, called the Allied Arts Academy. Unfortunately, the school had to close after only two years due to a lack of money, and not long after, Bonds moved to New York.

Bonds worked hard to make ends meet in New York, composing and performing almost nonstop. But once again, she won another scholarship, this time to the famous Julliard School of Music. The scholarship was for composition lessons, but she also continued to take piano lessons at the time–after all, you’re never too old to learn!

Bonds went on tour in 1947 and had another first with an orchestra in 1950: once again, she was the first African-American to perform, this time with the Scranton Philharmonic Orchestra. She founded the Margaret Bonds Chamber Music Society in 1956, and the group had their first concert at Carnegie Hall–one of the most sought-after places to hold a recital in the world!

Soon came an exciting period for Bonds: the 1960s. Not only had she become so successful that entire concerts were being held of just her music (one in 1963 and another in 1967), but this was the era of the Civil Rights movement, during which African-Americans fought for equal treatment under the law. Bonds was involved with the struggles at this time and composed music to encourage supporters of the movement. One example was the symphonic piece Montgomery Variations, which she dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr. There was even a “Margaret Bonds Day” in Chicago, on January 31, 1967!

She also was becoming famous not just in the United States, but all over the world. Her work Ballad of the Brown King had a premiere at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, and her music was being performed in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Senegal as well. Bonds really wanted to go to the premiere, but unfortunately, she didn’t have the chance.

Though Bonds achieved a huge level of success, one of her many talents worked against her: she kept many of her compositions in her head, and so it can be hard to find sheet music of themthese days! That said, unlike last week’s History Hunt composer, Amanda Aldridge, Bonds’ music is still available on Youtube. Here’s her arrangement of the traditional African-American spiritual, “Dry Bones”:

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (Sources):
From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and Their Music, by Helen Walker-Hill
“The Life and Solo Vocal Works of Margaret Allison Bonds,” by Alethea Nadine Kilgore
Margaret Allison Bonds at AfriClassical.com
Margaret Bonds at Afrocentric Voices
Margaret Bonds at Wikipedia.org

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