First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 15, 2021, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel
About this Piece
A lifelong advocate of social and racial justice, Margaret Bonds (1913–1972) grew up in a relatively affluent family in Chicago, in a community of Black artists and musicians. Though her parents divorced when she was young, they were both supportive of her obvious musical talent. As a 20-year-old pianist, Bonds became the first African American soloist to perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. As a composer, her experience was wide-ranging, including jazz arrangements, songs for children, film music, popular songs, choral music, and musicals, as well as classical compositions. As the years went by, though, if anyone had heard of her, it was usually because of her arrangements of traditional spirituals. Fortunately, after decades of neglect, her time finally seems to have arrived as much of her music is being rediscovered or even premiered almost half a century after her death.
Pursuing degrees in both piano and composition, Bonds studied at Northwestern where she encountered high levels of racial prejudice. While there, she also discovered the poetry of Langston Hughes, which struck a deep chord, leading to a 40-year artistic bond of artistic collaborations, mutual respect, and shared enthusiasms. In 1936, she began to set his poems to music, and they collaborated on numerous projects, the most successful of which was a Christmas cantata titled The Ballad of the Brown King. Hughes convinced her to move to New York, where he had moved, helping to launch the Harlem Renaissance.
Disconsolate after his death, she moved to California to work in Hollywood. When she died at 59, without a will, her husband and daughter gathered papers from her LA apartment. Many of her compositions were lost, and some even ended up next to a dumpster before they were rescued from oblivion. Now, because she has no survivors, no one knows who owns copyright to her music.
Considered a crowning work in her extraordinary career, Bonds’ Montgomery Variations was composed as a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., after her visit to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1963. Based on the spiritual “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me,” her Montgomery Variations is a set of freestyle ruminations on Montgomery as a focal point of the Civil Rights Movement. She never heard the piece performed.
Of its seven movements, the four presented at this concert are the following (with Bonds’ descriptions).
I: The Decision
Under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., and SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference], Negroes in Montgomery decided to boycott the bus company and to fight for their rights as citizens.
II: Prayer Meeting
The Spirit of the Nazarene marching with them, the Negroes of Montgomery walked to their work rather than be segregated on the buses. The entire world, symbolically with them, marches.
IV: Dawn in Dixie
Dixie, the home of the camelias known as “pink perfection,” magnolias, jasmine, and Spanish moss, awakened to the fact that something new was happening in the South.
A benign God, Father and Mother to all people, pours forth Love to His children—the good and the bad alike.