Georgetown’s music program revives the music of Margaret Bonds after decades of silence

April 15, 2022

Design by Dane Tedder; Image courtesy of New York Public Library

50 years. That’s how long it took for the music of Margaret Bonds, one of the 20th century’s most important American composers, to be performed before an audience again as originally intended. On April 2, Gaston Hall erupted with the sound of over 80 student musicians performing the remarkable work of this Black female composer.

“The Music and Activism of Margaret Bonds,” hosted by the GU Concert Choir and GU Orchestra, was monumental: It was the first time that selections from Bonds’ cantata “Simon Who Bore the Cross,” Montgomery Variations, or complete Credo had been performed, with full orchestra and choir together, since her death in 1973. The fact that Bonds’ work was largely forgotten until now is a testament to pervasive sexism and racism in classical music.

“It’s quite a tragic story, that’s why we call it systemic racism. It’s hard-wired into our DNA,” said Michael Cooper, a Southwestern University professor who has spent the past few years working on producing the first full-length biography of Bonds.

The soloists, Christian Simmons and Katerina Burton, both young Black performers accustomed to serenading crowds at the Kennedy Center, instead performed for an audience on Georgetown’s campus—a moment not lost on those gathered. 

“Georgetown University, like D.C., and this nation, was built with the labor of enslaved Black Americans,” Cooper said. “There’s also real poetry to the fact that Margaret Bonds’ music, which was mostly committed to challenging that enslavement and racial injustice, is now being revived in this space that was built by it.” 

“There’s real beauty that there’s a revived interest in the very music that so forcefully and eloquently challenges that history,” he added. 

Margaret Bonds was born in 1913 as the only child of Estella C. Bonds, a professional musician, and Monroe Alphus Majors, a physician and political activist. She blazed a trail within an industry—classical music—deeply hostile to her identity as a Black woman. Systemic structures of racial and sexist discrimination plagued the world of classical composing, a discipline often seen as exclusive to white men even today. Only four percent of classical musicians in the 1960s were Black; today, that number has dropped to less than two percent. 

Bonds enrolled at Northwestern University at the age of 16 and emerged with a bachelor’s and master’s in music and a slew of awards as a pianist. In 1933, she was the first African American to perform as a soloist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Already recognized as a piano virtuoso, Bonds ventured into writing songs and orchestral pieces with success. 

“She was a person who believed throughout her life that one of the purposes of art was to work for societal betterment to make life better for others,” Cooper said. “There is no 20th-century classical composer and there are few popular composers, with the possible exception of Nina Simone, who have a social justice portfolio as long-lasting, as persuasive and as eloquent as Bonds’.” 

Georgetown announced the acquisition of a large collection of Bonds’ personal papers in 2013, including a huge quantity of correspondences and hundreds of rare manuscripts. Contained in 18 Hollinger storage boxes, the collections housed in the Lauinger Library Special Collections archives constituted a crucial opportunity for music scholars to revive a critical missing piece of American classical music. 

“It’s a gold mine,” said Benjamin Harbert, the interim director of Georgetown’s music program. “The music program faculty are a mix of music practitioners and scholars who do historical and ethnographic work, so in all of our capacities, the library is a very important and connected part of our program.” 

The process of acquiring Bonds’ work proved fortuitous. According to Prof. Frederick Binkholder, the director of vocal music at Georgetown, the university’s current collection of Bonds’ paper was very nearly thrown away.

The collection’s 18 archive boxes hold the remnants of an extraordinary life. According to Cooper, Bonds composed her first work at the age of five, though it has since been lost. Bonds’ first published composition was a political campaign song written at the age of 15. 

By 1941, Bonds had reached significant heights of fame despite extreme prejudice—while at Northwestern, she was not permitted to live on campus. She faced a further setback at Julliard when Nadia Boulanger, a renowned French composer, turned her down for mentorship. Bonds founded the Allied Arts Academy in Chicago after college and began a fruitful friendship with Langston Hughes, who convinced her to move to Harlem where they wrote songs to support troops on the frontlines of World War II. 

Bonds’ fruitful cooperation with Hughes produced its own professional difficulties due to the music industry’s sexism. Out of 47 musical textbooks written before 1987, only 0.2 percent of the music sampled were written by women. 

“I think it was in the Columbia University student newspaper, they said Langston Hughes’ cantata The Ballad of the Brown King and didn’t mention Margaret Bonds,” Cooper said. “She sent a clipping of that to him, circled it, and wrote: ‘hmm that’s funny I didn’t know Langston composed music.’”

Bonds produced over 500 known compositions, many of which are set to poems written by Hughes. “Knowing that Margaret Bonds worked with Langston Hughes and was able to create these cantatas, there’s the rhythmic energy of the words but also the meaning of the words and how they perfectly came together,” Binkholder said. “It was like the perfect fit.”  

Despite her achievements and impact on the music world, none of the student performers interviewed by the Voice had heard of Bonds before working with her music. 

Katie Woodhouse (COL ’22) was amazed by Bonds’ mastery in composing lyrical music and its impact on her own performance. “I definitely grew as a singer with Margaret Bonds, and something that really kept me going was the story behind it and how powerful the words were,” she said. “There were multiple times a friend and I stood next to each other in the classroom and where I’d sing a line and I’d turn to her and thought: Damn. Wow.”

Binkholder praised Bonds’ ability as an orchestrator—utilizing her mastery of piano music—but also ability to write for the singing voice and employ a vast range of styles. “She has a wonderful background of what we would call ‘traditional Western music,’ Bach, Mozart, etc. However, she also has the music of the church: gospel music and spirituals,” he said. “Genius is the only way that I could describe it.”  

The pieces performed at Georgetown contained obvious religious undertones. Ian Franza (COL ’25) was especially struck by how Bonds’ music centered the Black experience within spirituality. Franza, who grew up attending a Brazilian Pentecostal church, remarked on how well Bonds’ work resonates across a diverse range of Black spiritual music. Singing the “Simon Bore the Cross” section of “The Crucifixion,” Franza felt a unique connection to the music.

“That song kind of forced me to put myself in almost like a different space. I had never felt an experience that specific with music. I was also kind of just letting myself be in my mind and my heart, and to just be moved by the music,” Franza said.  

The feeling Bonds’ music evoked in Franza is characteristic of her larger body of work. “The main theme from Montgomery Variations is very haunting, it stays with you,” Adrian Kalaw (COL ’23), a french horn player in the Orchestra, said. The piece was composed during the civil rights movement when Bonds was becoming more renowned. Kalaw explained how the music matches the evolution of the movement in tone, moving from joyous melodies to confusion, and then a lament in Bonds’ musical portrayal of the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL. 

Despite her accomplishments, and the quality of Bonds’ music, one systemic roadblock crippled her opportunity to secure her own legacy. Classical composers of the 1960s relied heavily on publishing to disseminate their works and allow their music to become part of the popular repertoire. Cooper noted that publishers refused to print works by African Americans and women, fearing that their works wouldn’t sell, perpetuating a systemically racist and sexist gap in the field. As such, almost all of Bonds’ music remained in manuscript form until her death, severely limiting its accessibility.

“Margaret Bonds was written out of history and suppressed from the publishing life,” Cooper said. 

Though a few Bonds pieces were recorded, accessing more of her work proved almost impossible for scholars and musicians. Helen Walker Hill, a musicologist at the University of Colorado Boulder who undertook a groundbreaking project in the 1990s to highlight the contributions of Black women composers, faced significant difficulty finding any of Bonds’ work in libraries across the country. 

Georgetown’s music program faced its own challenges in bringing Bonds’ work to life. Originally slated for performance in the spring of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic brought the program’s ambitions to a halt. Current seniors who were in the program since 2019 have sat with Bonds’ music for three years, performing virtually over the past two semesters, though the experience differed from in-person performances as the choir had to record their parts individually.

With few contemporary recordings of Bonds’ music published, and virtually none for any of the pieces played for the concert, student performers faced immense difficulties just figuring out the intended sound of Bonds’ work. 

“We were essentially making the character of the pieces ourselves, guided by scholars,” Kalaw said. “They were re-transcribed by Dr. Cooper to be readable for an orchestra. In the process, there are some typos, and sometimes where the chords didn’t make any sense.”

He added that even a single, last-minute change to a note transformed the character of the entire piece.

The demographics of the performance groups also mattered, as Georgetown’s Concert Choir and Orchestra grappled with a predominantly non-Black group singing from the voice of a Black artist. 

“The Georgetown orchestra, and orchestras in general, are not very diverse. It’s mostly dominated by white and Asian students. Only a small minority of GU Orchestra members are Black,” Kalaw said, noting that systemic wealth disparities exacerbate the problem. “There’s certainly a barrier to entry. You have to get an instrument—my french horn, for instance, costs thousands of dollars. To play at a higher level, you also need to have a teacher, who can be quite expensive. Sometimes, youth orchestras also have entrance fees.”

Playing Bonds’ music invited many student musicians at Georgetown to reflect on the demographics of their groups and the privilege that they brought into performing her work.

“There were a lot of specific lines in [the Credo] that just made me reflect on the fact that it is such a white-dominant choir. Like, are we the best people to put this on?” Woodhouse said. 

Franza highlighted the importance of bringing Bonds’ work into white spaces. “It’s really important that we bring a lot of this dialogue to heavily white spaces because I think the messages she was writing in her music are really important for not just people of color to hear, but also for white people here, especially Georgetown students given the university’s history with racism.” 

“I think what kind of helped me was recognizing that, even though I was a performer of this piece, I was not the speaker, I’m not the teacher. I am an audience of these ideas,” Emily Krok (COL ’22), a Concert Choir member since 2019, added. “It is my job to learn from her.”

Students and faculty alike hope that Bonds’ work becomes a part of the common repertoire of choir and orchestra music. Binkholder cautioned other conductors against shying away from performing Bonds’ music, though he noted that specific programming choices need to be made to do the work justice, such as the intentional decision to give the solos in the Georgetown performance to young, Black artists. 

“This music is too powerful to not be done,” Binkholder said. “But if you read the text of those movements, it would be beneficial to have a person of color to sing those roles. You do need to be mindful of that component.” 

For Krok, the performance of Bonds’ work leaves her reflecting on the impact of systemic marginalization in the music community. Bonds had the tenacity to weather through overt discrimination within the classical music industry, all the while investing herself in the civil rights movement. She also had the prudence to maintain and compile her life’s work in hope that it’s one day given justice. Yet still, Krok noted, her legacy depended on luck.  

“Her music almost got thrown out. It just got lucky, it got preserved, people decided to put it on display. There are all kinds of other composers who probably didn’t have the same luck,” Krok said. “How many Margaret Bonds are we missing, how many will we miss even today?” 

Disclaimer: Katie Woodhouse was formerly a Voice staff writer.

Jupiter Huang
Jupiter is the news exec and a sophomore in the SFS. Unironically, he’s a recovering STEM kid who has an inexplicable urge to live in Kazuo Ishiguro novels. And he will write a feature for Annie… eventually.

More: ,

Read More

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments