Sunday, May 23, 2021 Margaret Bonds studied with Florence Price, and was the first Black soloist to perform with Chicago Symphony

 Meet Margaret Bonds [1913-1972], a student of Florence Price and the first Black musician to perform with the Chicago Symphony. 
Picture: Getty

21 May 2021

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

The story of a barrier-breaking African American composer and musician who had a deep friendship – and for a while shared a roof – with the pioneering classical great, Florence Price.

Margaret Bonds was one of 20th-century America’s great music-makers, who forged a path as a Black woman composer in 1930s Chicago. 

Born Margaret Jeanette Allison Majors, Bonds came into the world on 3 March 1913 in Chicago, Illinois.

Her mother, Estella Bonds, was a musician, piano teacher and the local church’s choral director and organist. She taught piano to young Margaret from a very early age.

Her father, Monroe Majors, was a physician and lecturer. But her parents had an unhappy marriage, and when they split, Margaret’s last name was changed to Bonds. 

Aged eight, this young prodigy had won a scholarship to the Coleridge-Taylor Music School...

During high school, Margaret Bonds studied composition and piano with Florence Price – the first African American woman to be recognised as a symphonic composer and to have her work performed by major orchestras.

Price’s writing, as Bonds’ later would, married the European classical tradition with melodies from African American spirituals and folk tunes she grew up with.

By the age of 16, Bonds was studying at Northwestern University for a Bachelor of Music and later, a Masters in piano and composition. But she was in a minority of Black students, and the environment was racist, intimidating and almost intolerable.

Bonds recalls in an interview with James Hatch: “I was in this prejudiced university, this terribly prejudiced place – I was looking in the basement of the Evanston Public Library where they had the poetry. I came in contact with this wonderful poem, ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’, and I’m sure it helped my feelings of security.

“Because in that poem he [Langston Hughes] tells how great the Black man is: And if I had any misgivings, which I would have to have – here you are in a setup where the restaurants won’t serve you and you’re going to college, you’re sacrificing, trying to get through school – and I know that poem helped save me.”

Bonds’ collaboration with poet Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes was a leading poet and figure of the Harlem Renaissance, in whom Bonds found a life-long friend and collaborator.

Soon after they first met, Bonds set one of his best-known poems, ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’, to music.

During the Civil Rights Movement, Bonds and Hughes worked on music celebrating African American culture and values. Bonds would compose two important works dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr, one of them the Ballad of the Brown King, which was one of the duo’s most frequently performed pieces.

When Langston Hughes died in 1967, Bonds retreated. She left her husband and daughter in New York, and moved to Los Angeles where she remained until her death in 1972.

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