Monday, January 28, 2008

Margaret A. Bonds, African American Composer of “Troubled Water”

Margaret Allison Richardson Bonds was an African American composer, pianist and musical director who was born in Chicago, Illinois on March 3, 1913. Dominique-René de Lerma is Professor of Music at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. For four decades he has specialized in African heritage in classical music. He has kindly made his research entry on Margaret Bonds available to this Website. We learn from it that her parents separated two years after her birth, and divorced two years later: “She was born in Chicago as Margaret Jeanette Allison Majors to Dr. Monroe Majors and Estella C. Bonds...”. “Her parents separated in 1915 and, when her parents divorced in 1917, her mother resumed her birth name, assigning this also to her daughter.”

Prof. De Lerma describes Estella Bonds as: “...a church organist who began teaching her daughter piano when the child was five.” At the age of 13, Margaret Bonds started to learn composition from two up and coming African American composers, and also learned piano from one of them. She studied at a music school and participated in the youth section of a national organization of African American musicians, according to Prof. De Lerma: “By the time she had begun the study of composition in 1926 with Chicago newcomers William Dawson and Florence Price (with whom she also studied piano), she was a charter member of the Junior Music Division of the National Association of Negro Musicians, and had been a student at the Coleridge-Taylor Music School, where her mother and Tom Theodore Taylor served on the faculty."

Bonds entered Northwestern University at 16, in 1929. The research entry names her faculty members for piano and composition: “In 1929, she enrolled at Northwestern University where her piano teacher was Emily Boettiche Bogue and her composition teachers were Arnie Oldburg and Dean Carl Beecher. A Rosenwald Scholarship was awarded for graduate study at Northwestern in 1933, when she had been awarded the B.M. degree.”

Prof. Rae Linda Brown wrote the liner notes for the CD Black Diamonds: Althea Waites Plays Music By African-American Composers, Cambria 1097 (1993). She describes the importance of the Wanamaker Prize Bonds won in 1932 for her composition Sea Ghost: “Margaret Bonds (1913-1972) achieved national recognition when she won the Wanamaker Prize in 1932 for the song Sea Ghost, the same contest in which her teacher, Florence Price, received her coveted awards.”

“Bonds played a concerto by Florence Price with the Chicago Women's Orchestra in 1934, in a concert broadcast by CBS Radio: “She was pianist with the Chicago Women’s Orchestra the next year in the D minor concerto of Florence Price, conducted by Ebba Sundstrom and broadcast on CBS. She now had her M.M. degree from Northwestern (1934) and had already performed John Alden Carpenter’s concertino with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933, with Frederick Stock as conductor.”

The African American poet Maya Angelou wrote the liner notes for the solo piano CD of William Chapman Nyaho, Senku: Piano Music by Composers of African Descent, Music Masters 1091 (2003): “It was during her time at Northwestern University that she became the first African American to solo with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933.”

Prof. De Lerma tells us: “Bonds had wanted to study with William Grant Still and approached Nadia Boulanger for lessons. Neither hope was realized. Boulanger did not accept her because she felt she would be unable to provide proper guidance.” “The social circle of the Bonds’ home and later when she was an adult included composers Will Marion Cook, William Dawson, Kermit and Dorothy Rudd Moore, Noble Sissle, and Féla Sowandé, choral conductor Hall Johnson, singers Betty Allen, McHenry Boatright, Lillian Evanti, Roland Hayes, Hortense Love, and Abbie Mitchell, writers Arna Bontemps, Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen, pianist Armenta Adams, educator Nematilda Ritchie Woodard.

Maya Angelou continues her description of the activities of Bonds after finishing her studies at Northwestern University: “Upon graduation, Margaret Bonds worked in Chicago performing, composing and collaborating with writer and poet, Langston Hughes in cantatas, musicals and song cycles.” Prof. De Lerma elaborates further on this stage of Bonds' career: “She met Langston Hughes in 1936 and toured Wisconsin and Iowa with singer Katherine Van Buren, while studying orchestration with Albert Nölte. Both this season and the next, she worked in the Detroit theater of Elsie Roxborough and joined Katherine Dunham in the production of William Grant Still’s La guiablesse. For the musical education of Black youth in Chicago, she founded the Allied Arts Academy.”

“She moved to New York City in 1939 and served as editor for the publisher, Clarence Williams. It was this year that she married William Richardson. Her repeat performance of Carpenter’s concertino was broadcast with the WNYC orchestra in 1941.” When Bonds moved to New York City she intended to study at Juilliard. The research entry explains that she received a scholarship from Roy Harris, and enrolled in 1941. It identifies these individuals as her professors: “...Roy Harris (who provided her with a scholarship), Robert Starer, Martha Anderson, Emily Boetticher Bogue, and Walter Gossett.”

Bonds was active as a composer, soloist and member of a duo piano team in the 1940s. Prof. De Lerma writes: “ 1942, Hortense Love performed Bonds’ 5 Creek-freedmen. She had meanwhile been partner in a duo piano team with Frances Kraft Reckling, Calvin Jackson, and Gerald Cook (touring and broadcasting on WNYC with Cook in 1944) and as soloist appeared with The Chicago Women’s Symphony Orchestra, the Scranton Symphony, the New York City Symphony Orchestra, with recitals in Canada, Orchestra Hall (Chicago), radio broadcasts in New York and Hollywood, and performances in night clubs.”

“Concerts dedicated totally to her music were offered in Detroit in 1963 and in Washington in 1967. That year she received the Alumni Merit Award from Northwestern University and Mayor Richard Daley declared 31 January to be Margaret Bonds Day.” Prof. De Lerma adds that Bonds was also honored by the National Council of Negro Women (1962) and by ASCAP (1964-1966).

Dominique-René de Lerma says Margaret Bonds taught theater in both Harlem and Los Angeles: “Prior to her move in 1967 to Los Angeles, she taught at Harlem’s American Theatre Wing and wrote for the Los Angeles Jubilee Singers. The year after her arrival in California, she taught at the Inner City Institute and Repertory Theater, remaining until her death.”
The complete essay on Margaret Bonds can be found at her page at

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