Only 75 of the more than 200 compositions of pianist/composer Margaret Bonds (1913-1972) exist today. Of those 75 scores, only 47 were published during her lifetime. According to musicologist Helen Walker-Hill, in her book “From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and Their Music”, Bonds did not maintain organized files and often sent the original copies directly to the individual for whom it was written. Her manuscripts, therefore, are likely scattered all over the country. (In one case, an entire box of her scores was found sitting next to a dumpster at a book fair after failing to find a buyer.) One of Bonds’ largest and perhaps most important works–Montgomery Variations, written in 1965 during the Selma-to-Montgomery Freedom March and dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has seldom been performed. There is one video of it on YouTube, performed by the University of Connecticut Orchestra, that does not do it justice.
After receiving bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from Northwestern University in 1933 and 1934 respectively, Bonds went on to a career writing pieces for the Glenn Miller Orchestra and regularly performing on the radio. Educated as a classical musician, her work was versatile and strongly influenced by jazz and blues. Her compositions were performed by a large number of concert artists including Louis Armstrong and Woody Herman. She is the most well known for her associations and collaborations with Langston Hughes.
Although she was the first black woman to solo with the Chicago Symphony at age 22, she faced racism every day of her life (at the time she was attending Northwestern, black women weren’t allowed in the pool) and she said even more challenging than her experience as a black woman in the Civil Rights Era was the prejudices she faced as a woman in classical music. In a 1964 interview, Bonds said, “Women are expected to be wives, mothers, and do all the nasty things in the community (Oh, I do them). And if a woman is cursed with having talent too, then she keeps apologizing for it. … It really is a curse, in a way, because instead of working 12 hours a day like other women, you work 24.”