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Dedicated to Dr. Paul Kwami - Continuing the Work

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Margaret Bonds was born in 1913 in Chicago. Her mother was a pianist, a church musician and a member of the National Association of Negro Musicians. Her father was a physician and civil rights activist. Her parents divorced and she grew up primarily in her mother’s household, which served as a gathering place for many young Black artists and musicians including Abbie Mitchell, Lillian Evanti, Florence Price, and Will Marion Cook. Bonds studied piano and composition with Florence Price and William Dawson. During this time she worked as an accompanist for dancers and singers in Chicago.

In 1929, at the age of sixteen, Bonds began undergraduate studies at Northwestern University in piano performance and composition. She was one of very few black students at the university, none of whom were allowed to live on campus. While at Northwestern, her virtuosic piano playing and for her unique compositional style began to garner attention from the broader public. In 1932, Bonds won the Rodman Wanamaker Prize for composition’s art song category for her work, Sea Ghost. That same year, Florence Price won the symphonic and piano solo categories. In 1933, Bonds became the first Black soloist featured by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra during the same concert that marked Florence Price’s E minor Symphony premiere. A chance meeting with Langston Hughes in the 1930's sparked a four-decade-long friendship and creative partnership. Frequent correspondences between the two reveal that Hughes often sent Bonds lyrics that he hoped she would set. Among the most famous of these settings are The Negro Speaks of Rivers, Three Dream Portraits, and The Ballad of the 

Brown KingAfter receiving Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Northwestern, Bonds briefly remained in Chicago, where she taught piano privately. Among her students was the composer Ned Rorem. In 1939, she moved to New York City. She worked as a music editor, performed around the United States and Canada, taught at several musical theater institutions, founded a chamber music society to foster the work of Black composers, and worked as a church musician in Harlem. Throughout this period she maintained her friendship with Hughes and continued to set his poetry to music.

Despite being a pianist by trade, the majority of her currently known compositions are for the voice: songs, spiritual arrangements (many in collaboration of Leontyne Price), choruses, and musical theater works. Three of these works are extended choral compositions: Credo, Mass in d minor (incomplete), and The Ballad of the Brown King. Bonds' struggle to have her works performed was a source of lifelong frustration, which she describes in letters to Hughes. In 1967, aggrieved by the death of Hughes, Bonds left her family and moved to Los Angeles alone, where she lived until her death in April of 1972. Less than two months after her passing, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, led by Zubin Mehta, featured four movements of her Credo in performance. The music was called "Inspirational...lush, and lyrical" by LA Times critic Martin Bernheimer, who would later win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism. Bonds’ surviving materials exist, still largely in manuscript form, at several major U.S. institutions: Yale University, the Harlem Branch of the New York City Public Library, and the Georgetown University Library's special collections. The recent Georgetown acquisition is the product of a large stockpile of materials that were nearly lost. In 2011, Bonds’ daughter Djane Richardson passed away, and at her estate sale a book collector noticed boxes of music and letters left by a dumpster. These are the items now held by the Booth Family Special Collections division at Georgetown. With gratitude for the publishing work of Classical Vocal Reprints and Hildegard Press, and the scholarship and performance work of the musicianship we will feature this season,  it is our honor to promote awareness of Margaret Bonds, her life, and her musical legacy for the 2021-2022 season of ONEcomposer.



1913 - Margaret Jeanette Allison Majors is born in Chicago on March 3rd.

1917 - Her parents divorce. Margaret goes to live with her mother, the concert pianist Estella Bonds, who was a friend and colleague with Florence Price.

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1929 - Starts Bachelor's degree in piano and composition at Northwestern University.

1 - Major events, media, and resources for this timeline drawn from Helen Walker-Hill's From Sirituals to SymphoniesThe Blog of Dr. Michael Cooper, and Digital Resources made available by the Georgetown University Library's Booth Family Collection Margaret Bonds materials.



“Margaret Allison Bonds (1913-72) was one of the most startlingly original and provocative composers of twentieth-century American music, and one who achieved levels of renown that were widely considered unthinkable for an African American woman composer of classical music in her time or any other. Although she occupies a small but stable presence in modern musical life via some of her settings of poems of Langston Hughes (especially the Three Dream Portraits), her Troubled Water for piano solo, and her distinctively stylized arrangements of spirituals, most of her works still await recovery – because,  as a colleague observed after hearing excerpts of her setting of the Du Bois civil-rights Credo, Margaret Bonds’s musical language and passionate engagement with social issues make incontrovertibly clear that “this is music for NOW.” ONEcomposer’s decision to use the combined resources of scholarship and performance to promote interest in and awareness of Margaret Bonds is a poetically powerful embrace of the cause of justice – of righting the wrong of the marginalization of one of the most extraordinary composers of modern music history.”


–  Dr. John Michael Cooper, Southwestern University

"Margaret Bonds is one of our most charismatic American composers. Her music incorporates her own background of rigorous classical training, experience composing for Tin Pan Alley, many performing gigs featuring a variety of musical styles, and a deep love for Negro spirituals, an important part of her heritage. She had a life-long passion for learning; she was always studying something with somebody, whether that be composition, performance, orchestration, or conducting. Her personality balanced an upbeat and indefatigable work ethic with a huge amount of sass; the result was a unique and appealing voice that everyone can relate to, in a style that is undeniably American. Her effervescent letters to her dear friend of many years Langston Hughes give a taste of the personality of her music. In 1960, while they were working on their first cantata The Ballad of the Brown King, she wrote, “Though Jesus said ‘turn the other cheek,’ how can I write music with bruised and swollen cheeks?” Lucky for us Bonds preserved her cheeks and gave us many wonderful works to bring joy (and sass) into all our lives."


– Dr. Allegra Martin, The College of the Holy Cross

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