My Pianists From The Past series continues today with a fascinating article written by British pianist and musicologist Samantha Ege. Samantha is a leading interpreter and scholar of the African-American composer Florence Price. Her PhD on Florence Price, and publications on women’s music networks, have shed an important light on classical practitioners from underrepresented backgrounds. In this blog post she focuses on African American pianist and composer Margaret Bonds.
The history of early 20th century African American female concert pianists is the story of glass ceilings shattering as brown hands graced black and white keys in segregated venues. Segregation permeated every inch of society in the United States at this time; it is the reason why the documentation of African American classical pianists is as sporadic as the high-profile performance opportunities they were granted. The early 20th century American concert hall was a space where black and white patrons could not sit next to one another. The colour line was firmly entrenched. A concert pianist like Margaret Bonds (1913–1972) could bring black and white audiences together in appreciation for classical music, but Jim Crow laws made certain that their appreciation would emanate from opposing ends of the auditorium.
Bonds gives us a glimpse into the long history of illustrious black female classical pianists in the United States. The list of known names includes Hazel Harrison (1883–1969), Helen Eugenia Hagan (1891–1964), Frances Walker-Slocum (1924–2018), Natalie Hinderas (1927–1984), and Philippa Schuyler (1931–1967)—not to mention the number of jazz pianists with significant classical training like Lil Hardin Armstrong (1898–1971), Hazel Scott (1920 – 1981), and Nina Simone (1933–2003). And we cannot assume that the list ends there.
Bonds is remembered more for her compositions than for her performances. Her art songs and choral works continue to be programmed today. While less is known about Bonds the piano prodigy, I believe that a rarely told story is less an indication of its intrinsic value and more an indication of contemporary social and cultural priorities. So, with more and more American classical pianists of African descent rocking the stage before audiences from all backgrounds (like Dr. Karen Walwyn, Dr. Artina McCain, Dr. Leah Claiborne, Michelle Cann, and Lara Downes, to name a few), it is high time we started talking about the history of women like Bonds who paved the way.
Bonds was born in Chicago, Illinois. Her mother, Estella C. Bonds, was a church organist and active figure in Chicago’s black classical music clubs. Her father, Dr. Monroe Alphus Majors, was a physician, writer, and activist. Both parents supported her musical pursuits and instilled her with a strong sense of self-belief. Throughout her childhood, Bonds received various scholarships that allowed her to study piano at the Coleridge-Taylor School of Music and the Chicago Musical College. She pursued piano performance and composition at Northwestern University. There, she received her Bachelor and Masters of Music degrees. The Dean of the School of Music praised her as “the most talented coloured person who has been in this school during forty years. Her pianist attainments are nothing short of unusual and she has a decided gift as a composer.” Bonds continued her studies in piano and composition at Juilliard when she moved to New York in 1939.
Two of Bonds’ most high profile performances took place during her Northwestern years. On 15 July 1933, Bonds became the first African American soloist to perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The concert was part of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. Bonds performed John Alden Carpenter’s Concertino for Piano and Orchestra. Music critics praised her technical brilliance and sensitive interpretation. Rapturous applause followed as did a showering of flowers. Bonds was called back to the stage at least six times at the enthusiastic behest of Chicago’s diverse music lovers.
A year later, Bonds debuted the work of her friend and mentor Florence Price. She performed Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement with the Woman’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago and conductor Ebba Sundstrom. This concert took place on 12 October 1934 and was part of the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair. The concert unfolded in the Ford Symphony Gardens where, again, Bonds made history as the orchestra’s first African American soloist. She received high praise for her expert rendition and musical brilliance.
While we have not yet been able to recover recordings of Bonds playing Carpenter’s and Price’s concertos, we can gauge her superb artistry from the prestigious platforms to which she was invited and from the positive reception she received from critics and patrons. Recordings of Bonds playing art song accompaniments were recently unearthed by pianist Chelsea M. Daniel. Daniel’s co-authored piece, “Black Excellence on the Airwaves,” provides insight into the lesser-known history of Bonds the pianist. While it remains that recordings of Bonds’ performances are few and far between, there is one piece that affirms just how virtuosic a pianist Bonds was even at a young age: Fantasie Negre (no. 1 in E Minor). Beneath its title Price, wrote to the 15-year-old pianist: “To my talented little friend, Margaret A. Bonds.”
Troubled Water by Margaret Bonds:
Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.
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