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Margaret Allison Bonds
The Montgomery Variations

Margaret Allison Bonds
Born: March 3, 1913, Chicago, Illinois
Died: April 26, 1972, Los Angeles, California

The Montgomery Variations

Margaret Allison Bonds, a composer, pianist, arranger and teacher, was one of the first Black composers and performers to gain recognition in the U.S.

As a child, Bonds began studying piano with her mother, progressing to study at the Coleridge-Taylor Music School at age 8. Her mother’s home (her parents divorced when she was four years old) was often visited by many of the leading Black writers, artists and musicians of the era, among them sopranos Abbie Mitchell and Lillian Evardi and composers Florence Price and Will Marion Cook. During high school, she studied piano and composition with Price and with William Dawson and, in 1929, was admitted to Northwestern University, where she earned a master’s degree in music. There she also experienced her first direct exposure to racism—she was allowed to study there but not to live on campus or use their facilities, for example—and discovered the poetry of Langston Hughes.

Along with her arrangements of African American spirituals, Bonds is also remembered for her frequent collaborations with Hughes, which resulted in several works, including the song cycles Songs of the Seasons and Three Dream Portraits, music for the Hughes play Shakespeare in Harlem, and her Christmas cantata, Ballad of the Brown King.

As a pianist, Bonds toured both as part of a piano duo and as soloist. She was the first African American to perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (June 15, 1933 for the orchestra’s “Century of Progress” series) and, in 1934, she returned to perform Florence Price’s Piano Concerto in D Minor.

She first shared The Montgomery Variations with close friend and former student, the composer Ned Rorem, in 1964 and later dedicated the work to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Bonds wrote the following:

The Montgomery Variations is a group of freestyle variations based on the Negro spiritual theme, “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me.” The treatment suggests the manner in which Bach constructed his partitas—a bold statement of the theme, followed by variations of the theme in the same key—major and minor.

Because of the personal meanings of the Negro spiritual themes, Margaret Bonds always avoids over-development of the melodies.

The Montgomery Variations were written after the composer’s visit to Montgomery, Alabama, and the surrounding area in 1963 (on tour with Eugene Brice and the Manhattan Melodaires).…

[Sections of The Montgomery Variations:]

Decision. Under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. and SCLC, Negroes in Montgomery decided to boycott the bus company and to fight for their rights as citizens.

Prayer Meeting. True to custom, prayer meetings precede their action. Prayer meetings start quietly with humble petitions to God. During the course of the meeting, members seized with religious fervor shout and dance. Oblivious to their fellow worshippers they exhibit their love of God and their Faith in Deliverance by gesticulation, clapping and beating their feet.

March. The Spirit of the Nazarene marching with them, the Negroes of Montgomery walked to their work rather than be segregated on the buses. The entire world, symbolically with them, marches.

Dawn in Dixie. Dixie, the home of the camellias known as “pink perfection,” magnolias, jasmine and Spanish moss, awakened to the fact that something new was happening in the South.

One Sunday in the South. Children were in Sunday School learning about Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Southern “die-hards” planted a bomb and several children were killed.

Lament. The world was shaken by the cruelty of the Sunday School bombing. Negroes, as usual, leaned on their Jesus to carry them through this crisis of grief and humiliation.

Benediction. A benign God, Father and Mother to all people, pours forth Love to His children—the good and the bad alike.