Margaret Bonds Montgomery Variations

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Margaret Bonds Montgomery Variations Program Notes

Margaret Bonds came from a middle-class Chicago family. She showed early talent as a pianist and composer, and studied with Florence Price as a teenager. Her studies at Chicago’s Northwestern University yielded both undergraduate and graduate degrees.

Near the end of her studies, she performed as soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, in the American composer John Carpenter’s piano concerto, becoming the first Black soloist with that orchestra. The year earlier, she had attended the CSO World’s Fair concert that included Florence Price’s first symphony. For that concert, Bonds brought her own student, a 10-year-old Ned Rorem.

During her studies she became familiar with the poetry of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes: not able to use the library at her university (or dining hall, or other facilities), she found his poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in the Evanston Public Library. From the time the two met a decade later, they were, she said “we were like brother and sister, like blood relatives,” and she set several of his poems to music – these art-songs, and versions of spirituals, have been at the core of the pieces one might hear by Margaret Bonds. Renowned baritone Thomas Hamson included five songs by Bonds on his 2018 “Songs of Chicago” album, including Hughes poetry. On Langston Hughes’ urging, Bonds moved to New York, continuing some studies at Juilliard, collaborating with him, including music for his 1960 “Shakespeare in Harlem.” She worked in commercial music fields, and spent a lot of time volunteering for social and racial justice causes, teaching disadvantaged students, and from 1946, raising her daughter. Deeply saddened after Hughes died in 1967, Bonds moved her family to Los Angeles for a new start.

Alongside her many art songs, choral pieces and piano works, Bonds composed several larger works, but several remain lost. To their dedicatees, she would sometimes send a gift of the original manuscripts, so we may be hopeful more may come to light. This present work is a very new edition from Southwestern University musicologist John Michael Cooper and Hildegard Publishing Company, which focuses on works by female composers. After Bonds’ death in 1972, her daughter, Djane Richardson, was caretaker for her manuscripts. When Richardson died in 2011 – she lived in or near Morningside Heights, NYC – boxes of music were passed to a bookseller by her landlord, but they didn’t sell at a Washington D.C. book fair and, had they not been noticed, would have gone to landfill. Fortunately, they are now available to researchers, at Georgetown University’s library, in time for performers’ and researchers’ new interest in more fully telling the story of American music and society, even if that leads to uncomfortable truths.

Bonds composed Montgomery Variations in the wake of the 1963 firebombing of Birmingham, Alabama’s 16th Street Baptist Church, a target of white nationalists since it was a center of Black organizing for equal rights – the Montgomery bus boycott and other racial rights actions against Jim Crow segregation were in full swing, as was backlash against them. The attack injured dozens of church members – it was a Sunday, and killed four young girls (three born in 1949, one in 1951). Five days later, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a touching and forceful eulogy, calling it “one of the most viscous and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.” The FBI identified the four perpetrators, although they weren’t tried until 1977, and then 2001 and 2002.

Margaret Bonds wrote her own program notes, and these are as follows:

“The Montgomery Variations” is a group of freestyle variations based on the Negro Spiritual theme, “I want Jesus to Walk with Me.” The treatment suggests the manner in which Bach constructed his partitats – a bold statement of the theme, followed by variations of the theme in the same key – major and minor.

The words are as follows.

I want Jesus to walk with me.
I want Jesus to walk with me.
All along my pilgrim journey,
Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.

In my trials, Lord, walk with me.
In my trials, Lord, walk with me.
When my heart is almost breaking,
Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.

When I’m in trouble, Lord, walk with me.
When I’m in trouble, Lord, walk with me.
When my head is bowed in sorrow,
Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.

[Bonds continues:] Because of the personal meanings of the Negro spiritual themes, Margaret Bonds always avoids over-development of the melodies.

“The Montgomery Variations” were written after the composer’s visit to Montgomery, Alabama, and the surrounding area in 1963 (on tour with Eugene Brice and the Manhattan Melodaires).

In December 1960, “The Ballad of the Brown King” was dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr., and presented at Clark Center, YWCA in New York, by the Church of the Master and Clark Center as a benefit to Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Langston Hughes, the author of the text, was present on this occasion.

Under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. and SCLC, Negroes in Montgomery decided to boycott the bus company and to fight for their rights as citizens.

Prayer Meeting
True to custom, prayer meetings precede their action. Prayer meetings start quietly with humble petitions to God. During the course of the meeting, members seized with religious fervor shout and dance. Oblivious to their fellow worshippers they exhibit their love of God and their Faith in Deliverance by gesticulation, clapping and beating their feet.

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.

Dawn in Dixie
Dixie, the home of the Camellias known as “pink perfection,” magnolias, jasmine and Spanish moss, awakened to the fact that something new was happening in the South.

One Sunday in the South
Children were in Sunday School learning about Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Southern “die-hards” planted a bomb and several children were killed.

The world was shaken by the cruelty of the Sunday School bombing. Negroes, as usual, leaned on their Jesus to carry them through this crisis of grief and humiliation.

A benign God, Father and Mother to all people, pours forth Love to His children – the good and the bad alike.

Margaret Bonds
Born: March 3, 1913, Chicago, IL
Died: April 26, 1972, Los Angeles, CA


Listen to free streaming of Bonds Montgomery Variations here.

Categories: Program Notes