Margaret Bonds (1913-1972)
by Randye Jones
Margaret Jeanette Allison Majors was born on March 3, 1913, in Chicago, Illinois. Her father, Monroe Majors, was a physician, lecturer, and author who also was politically active. Her mother, Estella Bonds, was a trained musician who taught piano and served as church choral director and organist.
When her parents’ troubled marriage ended in 1917, the young Margaret’s last name was changed to Bonds. She grew up her mother’s household, a place regularly the hangout for African American students and many of the leading artistic and literary figures that either lived in or visited the Chicago area.
Margaret Bonds began studying piano with her mother at a very early age. By the time she reached age eight, she had progressed to studying at the Coleridge-Taylor Music School. Eventually, she studied composition with Florence Price and William Dawson. In 1929, she was admitted to Northwestern University, where she was allowed to study but not to live or use their facilities. Her years there represented her first direct exposure to racism. Bonds described her experience and how she learned to cope:
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.1
Three years into her studies, her song, “Sea Ghost,” won the prestigious Wanamaker award. She received her master’s degree in music from Northwestern in 1934. That same year, she became the first African American to perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and she was the featured pianist for the Woman’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago’s performance of Price’s Piano Concerto in D Minor.
Bonds continued refining her skills as a composer, working with professional composers such as Will Marion Cook and his wife, singer Abbie Mitchell. She also made a living by teaching piano to area students, including ten-year-old Ned Rorem. After an unsuccessful attempt to open a music academy in Chicago, Bond relocated to New York in 1939.
Within a year of her arrival, she had become actively involved in the musical theater life, both as a composer and pianist. Bonds also studied composition privately with famed composer Roy Harris and piano with Djane Herz at Julliard. She toured both as part of a piano duo and, in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, as soloist playing a variety of classical and contemporary works. One of her most recorded compositions from this period is “Troubled Water,” from the Spiritual Suite for piano.
During the 1950’s, Bonds composed a number of works using the poems of Langston Hughes–whom she had finally met in 1936 and with whom she become close friends over the years. The song cycles from this period include, Songs of the Seasons and Three Dream Portraits, as well as music for the Hughes play, Shakespeare in Harlem. The debut of her Christmas cantata, Ballad of the Brown King, which again used words by Hughes, was televised by CBS in December 1960. Commissions continued to come her way, including requests from singers Leontyne Price and Betty Allen. One of Bonds’ most well known settings was “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand,” composed for Price in 1963.
When Langston Hughes died in 1967, Bonds suddenly decided to move to Los Angeles, leaving behind Lawrence Richardson, her husband of 27 years, and their 21-year-old daughter, Djane. She worked with the Los Angeles Inner City Cultural Center and Repertory Theater, and she offered music instruction to community youths in the basement of the center.
Despite her many professional successes, the personal tragedies in her life–especially the deaths of her mother in 1957 and Hughes ten years later–profoundly affected Bonds. She relied on alcohol more and more to cope with bouts of depression. Acquaintances of the composer believed that this was a direct cause of the heart attack that killed Bonds on April 26, 1972. Margaret Bonds was buried next to her mother’s grave in Chicago.
1Margaret Bonds, Interview by James Hatch, Los Angeles, December 28, 1971. Quoted in Helen Walker-Hill, From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and Their Music (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002), 156.
The Spirituals Database is a searchable listing of compact discs, long-playing discs, 78 rpm, and audio cassette recordings by various vocalists, including this artist, of Negro Spirituals set for concert performance. Information is available about song selections spanning a century from Burleigh’s “Deep River” to the present day. To see the recordings by this artist currently represented in the database, please click on the image to the right.
To cite this page: Afrocentric Voices in Classical Music. Created by Randye Jones. Created/Last modified: December 13, 2019. Accessed:. http://www.afrovoices.com/wp/margaret-bonds-biography.