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The Life of Margaret Bonds and Three Dream Portraits

Nicole Hunt Music in America May 2, 2012

Margaret Allison Bonds was one of the most interesting and understudied American composers of the twentieth century. Historically, women composers as well as composers of African American descent have been largely ignored (WalkerHill,2007). There have been a few exceptions to this rule. Composers like Scott Joplin, William Grant Still, and Duke Ellington (Floyd, 1995) hold places in most music history books along with Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann and Amy Beach (Ammer, 2001). Where does the female African American composer fit in history of music (Walker-Hill,2007)? History shows that there have been many composers who were African American women. Names such as Florence Price, Irene Britton Smith, Dolores White, Undine Smith Moore, and Margaret Bonds may not be as familiar to Americans as names such as Gershwin, Bernstein, and Sondheim, but their music is no less rich and fascinating as their Anglo American counterparts (2007). Margaret Bonds was one of the most successful composers of her time, excelling at several types of composition (Mitchell, 2007). Some of her most intriguing work was for the voice, especially the in the genre of art song (Moham, 1997). Her life was varied and thought-provoking and her compositional aesthetic was a unique reflection of this (Walker-Hill, 2007). Compositions such as Three Dream Portraits, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, her choral settings such as Credo and Mass in D Minor (Thomas, 1983), as well as her arrangements of African American spirituals show an innovative and fascinating composer that deserves more study (Walker-Hill,2007). Born in Chicago, Illinois on March 3, 1913, Margaret Jeanette Allison Majors was the daughter of Dr. Monroe Majors and Estella C. Bonds (Walker-Hill,2007,145). Dr. Monroe was an author, lecturer, and physician, and Estella Bonds was a church choral

director and organist as well as a trained musician who taught piano (145). After the divorce of her parents, Margarets last name was changed to her mothers maiden name (145). Growing up solely with her mother, Margaret was influenced by the many African American artistic and literary figures, and students that visited the home (145). Estella Bonds was the organist for Berean Baptist Church, a church that used Western Art music regularly as a part of services (Bone, 2011, 94). Bonds was raised in Chicago during the beginning of a period that has been called the Chicago Black Renaissance(Bone, 2011, xv). An offshoot of the Harlem Renaissance, this era was defined by the contributions and influence of AfricanAmerican writers, musicians, and artists (7). These renaissance periods were influenced by a movement called The Great Migration. The Great Migration was the movement of African-Americans from the southern states in the US to the north as a result of the invention of the cotton gin, as well as because of the deep influence of racism in all parts of society (19). As a result certain areas, specifically Chicago and Harlem, New York became hotbeds of creative artists looking for and producing work(20). Estella welcomed many influential figures of the renaissance into her home, including composers such as William Dawson and Florence Price (Walker- Hill, 2007, 146) . Estella began teaching her daughter piano until the age of five where she continued to study piano with the teacher Martha B. Anderson (Walker- Hill, 2007, 146). Margaret also began to accompany her mother on piano at Berean Baptist Church, furthering her exposure to Western Art music (Bone, 2011, 97). At the age of eight, Bonds was studying at the Coleridge-Taylor Music School with Tom Taylor; the school

in which her mother was an instructor of piano (Walker- Hill, 2007, 146). She would continue to receive instruction from Taylor, along with instruction by Florence Price, until she entered Northwestern University (146). Estella wished for Margaret to focus on a performance career, hoping to transform her daughter into a concert pianist; however Margarets interest in composition became her primary focus and it was composition she studied with Florence Price as well as William Dawson when the composers moved to Chicago in 1926 (147). Bonds chose to follow this interest into college where composition became her emphasis (147). In 1929, at 16 years of age, Bonds was admitted to Northwestern University. Margaret studied composition with Arnie Oldburg, piano with Emily Boettcher Bogue, and vocal composition with Carl Beecher (Walker-Hill, 2007, 146). Bonds had hoped to study with Nadia Boulanger during this period, but Boulanger felt that she would not be an adequate teacher for Margaret and encouraged her to find her musical voice, independent of strict instruction (153). While attending Northwestern University, Bonds experienced some of her first exposure to racism (156). As an African American woman active in the first half of the twentieth century, the deep seeded racial problems the United States has experienced likely placed her contributions to music underground (Floyd, 1995). Thematic material detailing her experiences with prejudice is present in her compositions (Walker-Hill, 2007, 156). She was allowed to study at Northwestern but not to live on campus or use their facilities (156). Margaret explained what helped her 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 ( as displayed in Walker-Hill, 2007). In 1932, during Bonds third year at Northwestern University, Bonds song Sea Ghost won the song prize at the prestigious Wanamaker award competition (WalkerHill, 2007, 146). Florence Price won the overall prize of the same competition for her Symphony in E Minor. In 1933, she became the first African American to perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as a featured pianist for John Alden Carpenters Concertino at the Chicago Worlds Fair(146). In 1934, she was a featured pianist for the Woman's Symphony Orchestra of Chicago's performance of Florence Price's Piano Concerto in D Minor . Bonds graduated with her Bachelors degree from Northwestern in 1933, and finished her Masters degree only one year later in 1934 (Moham, 1997, 28). The poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was one of the lauded and highly influential writers of the Harlem Renaissance and is usually seen as one of its primary leaders (Berry, 1983). Bonds met Langston Hughes in 1936 (Walker-Hill,2007, 149). This sparked a strong friendship and musical partnership that would last the rest of Hughes life (Berry 1983); Hughes work would serve as the text for many of Bonds vocal works (Walker-Hill,2007, 149). That same year, Bonds produced a few musical settings of Hughes poetry. These included The Negro Speaks of Rivers, Park Bench, Joy, and Pome dAutomne (149). Hughes and Bonds collaborated on many larger works, most notably the song cycle Three Dream Portraits, the cantata Ballad of the Brown King (1962), and the musicals Dont You Want to be Free and Shakespeare in Harlem (1959)(149). These collaborations aided Bonds career greatly as Hughes

promoted their work to prominent musicians of the era who in turn added them to their repertoire (149). During the remainder of the 1930s, Bonds remained active in the Chicago music scene, becoming involved in various projects and furthering her career as a teacher. One of her earliest and most noted students was Ned Rorem, whom she instructed in piano at the age of ten (Walker-Hill,2007, 149). When she was awarded a Rosenwald Fellowship for graduate study at Northwestern in 1933; Bonds met the Rorem family as a recipient of the award (149). The Dean of the University of Chicago, Rufus Rorem, asked her to teach his son Ned. As a piano student, Ned Rorem found 20th century composers more stimulating than those of previous eras, and this interest was encouraged by Bonds (151). Bonds and Rorem would continue their friendly relationship well into Rorems adult career, and Rorem counts Bonds as a major influence in his life (151). Bonds also founded a school for African American students in Chicago. Bonds founded the Allied Arts Academy in Chicago, a school for the arts that incorporated courses in music, ballet, and the visual arts (Walker-Hill, 2007, 150). While working as the director and teacher of the school, Bonds also continued her composing and concertizing career active, serving as a freelance musician (150). Unfortunately, the Great Depression limited the school financially, and it eventually closed in 1939 (150). Even though the closure of her school was a disappointment, 1939 would have its successes for Bonds (150). In this year, Bonds co-wrote a popular song with Andy Razafar called Peach Tree Street, which would be adapted for the movie Gone with the Wind. Peach Tree Street would prove to be the most popular of Bonds compositions,

with cover versions by various artists of the day (Ammer, 2001, 175). Bonds also took opportunities to tour as a part of a piano duo with Gerald Cook (Walker-Hill, 2007, 151). Bonds also decided to try to further her career beyond Chicago and moved to New York in 1939 (151). In New York, Bonds enrolled in Juilliard School of Music and continued to progress in her compositional studies (Walker-Hill, 2007, 151). Bonds studied composition under Robert Starer and piano with Djane Herz (151). Bonds also studied privately with composers Emerson Harper, Walter Gossett, and Roy Harris, who provided Bonds with a fellowship (151). During this time she also met her future husband Lawrence Richardson, which she married in 1940 (151). After working with Clarence Williams, Bonds became music editor for his production company. The association with Williams led to Bonds working in Tin Pan Alley and to collaboration with songwriter Harold Dickinson (150). This collaboration would prove fruitful for Bonds, as a song they wrote together, Spring Will Be So Sad, became a hit, being covered by several swing bands, such as those of Glenn Miller and Woody Herman (150). During the 1940s Bonds devoted herself solely to composition and teaching, eventually leaving New York in 1967 for Los Angeles to work in television scoring, film scoring and teaching, where she died suddenly in 1972 (Moham, 1997, 31). During her career, Bonds composed several types of compositions, ranging from art songs, choral pieces, and spiritual arrangements, to pieces for piano, orchestra including two ballets (Walker-Hill,2007, 143). Bonds also received several commissions; the most prominent of which were Five Creek-Freedmen Spirituals a song cycle of spirituals, for soprano Hortense Love, and several arrangements of spirituals for

soprano Leontyne Price (163). In total, Bonds composed forty-two art songs (Moham, 1997,5). Even though many of these are unpublished or out of print, all of these compositions that are available are incredibly diverse(15). Bonds set texts of great variety by the aforementioned Hughes, Robert Frost, Joyce Kilmer, Countee Cullen, and many other writers (20). Bonds explored many poetic themes in her work including those of racial identity and social awareness songs (Moham, 1997, 10). Bonds compositional style was one of combination. Bonds works simultaneously display characteristics of Romanticism, blues, jazz, and popular music (22). As a sort of Neo-romantic composer, Bonds chose harmonic language steeped in jazz, irregular melodic and rhythmic motion, and playful sonorities to build stunning and intimate pieces for voice and piano (23). In Three Dream Portraits (1959), Bonds most frequently performed work, Bonds uses poetry from a Langston Hughes poetry collection called The Dream Keeper (Walker-Hill, 2007, 150). Published in 1932, the collection of poems was created specifically for young readers (Berry, 1983, 171). The Dream Keeper was a source of much inspiration for Bonds, as The Negro Speaks of Rivers, the beloved poem that Bonds also set to music, is from the same collection (Hughes, 1932). For Three Dream Portraits, Bonds chose the poems: Minstrel Man, Dream Variations, and I, Too (Bonds,1959). The cycle begins with the song Minstrel Man. The poem tells the story of a singer, presumably African American in a minstrel show. He comments on the irony of his life, where he performs in a joyful manner but hurts deeply inside his soul. Because my mouth Is wide with laughter

And my throat Is deep with song, You do not think I suffer after I have held my pain So long? Because my mouth Is wide with laughter, You do not hear My inner cry? Because my feet Are gay with dancing, You do not know I die?(Hughes, 1932) Set in B minor, Bonds song uses several compositional devices to highlight the irony of the text. Bonds uses modal mixture to convey the disparity between the outward appearance of the performer and his inner struggle (Taylor, 1998,10). She displays instances of text painting, such as on the word long, and uses a gradually ascending scale that ends on the highest note in the composition to display the peak of frustration for protagonist (11). The song is built on a syncopated arpeggiating piano pattern that sounds disjunctive and broken, further illustrating the mixture of feelings within the minstrel man (11). The second song in the set is Dream Variation. The poem describes a person that dreams of dancing and the freedom to rest when they finished. To fling my arms wide In some place of the sun, To whirl and to dance Till the white day is done. Then rest at cool evening Beneath a tall tree While night comes on gently, Dark like meThat is my dream!

To fling my arms wide In the face of the sun, Dance! Whirl! Whirl! Till the quick day is done. Rest at pale evening... A tall, slim tree... Night coming tenderly Black like me (Hughes, 1932). This song uses a vocal melody and accompaniment pattern that seem to truly illustrate the dancing aspect of the text. The piano uses a running eighth note pattern that seems to embody the whirling of the dance, while the buoyant and exuberant vocal line exemplifies the freedom of dancing (Taylor, 1998, 11). Set in F sharp major in 12/8 time, this composition contains Bonds typical use of chromaticism and complex harmonic language (Bonds, 1959). The final song of the set is I, Too. This poem, the longest in this brief song cycle describes a person that feels degraded by others and wishes to be treated equally. The protagonist decides to defy societal norms as a result. The last line of the poem was not set by Bonds (Bonds, 1959). I, too, sing America. I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen When company comes, But I laugh, And eat well, And grow strong. Tomorrow, I'll be at the table When company comes. Nobody'll dare Say to me, "Eat in the kitchen," Then.


Besides, They'll see how beautiful I am And be ashamed-I, too, am America (Hughes, 1932).

This song is the most ambitious of the entire cycle (Taylor, 1998, 11). Bonds divides the song into three sections, each with its own harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic language. The piano reflects the various emotional states of the protagonist in the text, using fluctuating rhythms, erratic harmonic changes, and intricate nuances to tell the story of the hero with the music alone (Bonds, 1959). Set in D minor, this song contains preludes, interludes, and postludes of some length, making this song a showcase for a capable pianist (Taylor, 1998, 11). Three Dream Portraits is a brief song cycle, most performances last around five minutes (Taylor, 1998, 11). Each song is fleeting, telling three distinct musical stories in a multitude of ways. All three songs reflect Bonds compositional style; rich with multifaceted layers of sonority, showing immense skill and talents that have been performed too infrequently (Walker-Hill, 2007, 150). Margaret Bonds music, especially in the genre of art song, is of tremendous quality and could prove quite enjoyable for an ambitious performer. It is unfortunate that such an adventurous and skilled composer has been ignored due to the likely racism and gender exclusion that can occur in the world of art music (Floyd, 1995). Hopefully, there will be more research performed in the future in order to bring Bonds extensive works, and the works of other African American female composers, into the regular performing repertoire of concert halls.


Bibliography Ammer, Christine. 2001. Unsung: a history of women in American music. Portland: Amadeus Press. Berry, Faith. 1983. Langston Hughes, before and beyond Harlem. Westport, Conn: L. Hill. Bonds, Margaret, and Langston Hughes. 1959. Three dream portraits: poems from "The dream keeper". New York: G. Ricordi & Co. Bone, Robert, Richard A. Courage, and Amritjit Singh. 2011. The Muse in Bronzeville African American Creative Expression in Chicago, 1932-1950. Piscataway: Rutgers University Press. http://www.msvu.ca:2048/login?url=http://www.msvu.eblib.com/patron/FullRecord .aspx?p=858960. Floyd, Samuel A. 1995. The power of Black music: interpreting its history from Africa to the United States. New York: Oxford University Press. Hughes, Langston, and J. Brian Pinkney. 1932. The dream keeper and other poems. New York: Knopf. Mitchell, Geralyn Stacy. 2007. "Margaret Bonds: A Comparative Study of Four Spirituals (1942--1967)."The University of Texas at El Paso. http://search.proquest.com/docview/304761436?accountid=6444. Moham, Carren D. 1997. The contributions of four African-American women composers to American art song. Thesis (Ph. D.)--Ohio State University, 1997. Taylor, Darryl. 1998. "The Importance of Studying African-American Art Song." Journal of Singing - the Official Journal of the National Association of Teachers of Singing 54 (3): 9-16. http://search.proquest.com/docview/1400184?accountid=6444. Thomas, Andre Jerome. 1983. "A Study of the Selected Masses of Twentieth-Century Black Composers: Margaret Bonds, Robert Ray, George Walker, and David Baker."University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. http://search.proquest.com/docview/303165713?accountid=6444.

Walker-Hill, Helen. 2007. From spirituals to symphonies African-American women composers and their musc. Urbana, Ill. [u.a.]: Univ. of Illinois Press.