Margaret Bonds was born in Chicago in 1913. As a young girl, she was surrounded by music (her mother was a musician in their church) and by pride for her African American heritage (her father was a doctor who was active in the civil rights movement). You can hear the influence of her parents in many of her compositions, especially her versions of African American spirituals and her songs using poetry by Black authors (such as Langston Hughes).
Some of Bonds' most-frequently performed pieces are versions of traditional Spirituals. Last month I had the privilege of performing Bonds' version of "He's Got The Whole World" with my friend, the opera singer Ellaina Lewis at a church in Redmond! This piece gives you a good idea of the drama and excitement that Margaret Bonds put into her music!
(Please Note - This video is an entire church service where I was a guest performer. If the video does not automatically start at 9'40", please skip forward to that point. Listen until 12'45" for the end of the piece, or listen until 16'30" to hear a beautiful version of the song "Deep River" by Moses Hogan, too!)
Margaret Bonds was a pianist in addition to being a composer, so many of her compositions feature the piano! In this movement (part of a suite, or group of pieces) the music alternates between sounds that imitate bells and music that is inspired by African American spirituals. Where have you heard bells before? Does the sound of bells remind you of any emotions, feelings, or moods?
Margaret Bonds was a frequent collaborator with other artists. This means she worked together with famous musicians and poets to create her art. She worked closely with Florence Price (who was her teacher), and with the poet Langston Hughes. She also used poetry by other famous authors such as Robert Frost.
This is perhaps Frost's most famous poem, and in this setting Margaret Bonds takes a more experimental approach to her music. Can you hear the quiet, dark, mysterious forest in the piano notes? Can you hear some uncertainty, mystery, and wonder in the part that the singer performs?
Here is another solo piano piece that was written by Margaret Bonds but that was only recently discovered! A tango is a dance from South America, and you can hear some influence of tango music, especially in the left hand of this piece!
Notice the way that Lara Downes performs, with a relaxed, yet strong, curved shape to her fingers. They are flexible and move up and down, side to side, but they still keep their curved shape. Is this something you can do at the piano?
In this piece by Margaret Bonds, we get to hear music for piano and choir. The music shows the clear influence of Jazz (a style of music that was created by Black musicians), and it's subject matter shows Bonds' pride in her African ancestry. This music tells the story of one of the Three Kings (or Wise Men) from the Christmas story. One of these kings has traditionally been shown in paintings as having darker skin, and Bonds' music celebrates the contributions of this man to the Christmas story.
In this video you get the interesting perspective of only seeing the conductor. Notice how she does not conduct much when just the piano is playing; instead, her job is coordinate all the other musicians to make sure they know when to start and how fast to go. Notice that she also tells the choir (through her body language, facial expressions, and arms) the emotions that they should be bringing to life in the music! Have you ever watched a conductor lead a musical group before?
Let's end our exploration of music by Margaret Bonds by sharing a video of one of the most famous opera singers of the 20th century, Leontyne Price (who is now 94 years old!). Price was the first African American artist to star in an opera at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
This video is from a performance of Margaret Bonds' version of the famous spiritual "This Little Light of Mine" at the White House in 1978. (Do you know who was president of the USA in 1978?) This song is very well-known, and Bonds did not make the singer do anything unexpected, but the piano part is very unexpected! What kinds of emotions do you hear in the piano music? Does it sound like the piano and the voice are having a musical conversation?
Thanks for listening!
I hope you enjoyed hearing some of Margaret Bonds' beautiful music!