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Margaret Bonds

Margaret Allison Bonds (1913 - 1972) was an American composer and pianist who championed classical works, arrangements of African-American spirituals, and popular music. She was one of the first black female composers to gain nationwide recognition for her work, and at twenty years old, became the first black soloist to perform with a major symphony orchestra. Bonds is best remembered today for her comprehensive catalog of work and dedication to advancing and collaborating with prominent black creatives throughout her lifetime.   

Born in Chicago to Estella C. Bonds, a professional musician, and Dr. Monroe Majors, a physician and political activist, Bonds was encouraged and supported by her parents to pursue music and to always maintain an active role in her community. Estella Bonds was a member of the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM) and maintained close friendships with many leaders in Chicago’s African-American community, including Will Marion Cook, Abbie Mitchell, Florence Price, and Langston Hughes. Bonds became a member of the NANM Junior Music Association in 1925.  

Bonds began composing and learning piano as a young teen, her earliest teachers being Florence Price and William Dawson.  She applied to Northwestern University at sixteen, where she earned both a B.M. and M.M. in piano and composition. After graduation, she stayed in Chicago and worked as a composer, performer and piano teacher. In 1933, Bonds performed John Alden Carpenter’s Concertino with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, making her the first black soloist to perform with a major symphony in the United States.  

Bonds met Langston Hughes in 1936 when she wrote the musical Romey and Julie, produced by the Negro Theater Project in Chicago. Bonds and Hughes maintained a close friendship for decades, with Hughes’s poetry being a major text source for Bonds’s most notable songs including The Negro Speaks of Rivers, Joy, Poème d’Automne, and Winter Moon. Bonds regularly played at Chicago’s Palmer House Hotel and, in 1939, moved to New York City where she began performing at the Café Society, then the only racially-integrated nightclub in New York. It is here where she performed in a piano duo with one of her most notable students Gerald Cook, started writing popular music, taught privately, all while still composing and performing classical works.  

Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, Bonds remained a staunch advocate for social justice. She founded The Margaret Bonds Chamber Music Society, whose mission was to establish a canon of music by African-American composers. She worked at the East Side House Settlement, a nonprofit for underprivileged youth, and presented concerts of black composers there and around New York City. After a visit to Montgomery, Alabama in 1963, Bonds wrote The Montgomery Variations, a seven-movement work based on the spiritual “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me.” She dedicated this piece and her Christmas Cantata The Ballad of the Brown King to Martin Luther King, Jr. A large portion of Bonds’s body of work includes modern arrangements of African-American spirituals, many of which were performed by her friend, soprano Leontyne Price. Most popular was Bonds’s 1962 settings of “He's Got the Whole World in His Hand” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”.  

Bonds moved to Los Angeles in 1967 to pursue film scoring. She lived and worked there until her death in April 1972. The Los Angeles Philharmonic paid tribute to Bonds with a performance of her final major work Credo, for chorus and orchestra with text by W.E.B. DuBois. 


Credit: Olivia Cleri

MapThe Academy of Music

Fri, Feb 3 8:00 p.m.
Sun, Feb 5 2:00 p.m.

Approximately 90 minutes including a 5 minute pause

The Academy Series is underwritten, in part, by Judy and Peter Leone.

Major support has been provided by Ms. Lisa D. Kabnick and Mr. John H. McFadden.

Support for the Opera Philadelphia Orchestra and Chorus has been provided by Alice and Walter Strine, Esqs.

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