MusicMusic Features

Queens University Celebrates Legacy of Margaret Bonds

Honoring a Black composer's pioneering impact on music and civil rights activism

Justin Smith (far left) leads a rehearsal for the upcoming symposium (Photo by Isaac Mung).

By the late 1960s, Margaret Bonds should have been riding high.

Through her tireless, highly productive career, the 54-year-old composer and performer had become the first African American to perform as a soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at age 20.

After earning bachelor’s and master’s degree at Northwestern University in the mid-1930s, she performed regularly on radio; wrote popular music pieces for artists including the Glenn Miller Orchestra; and founded the Allied Arts Academy, a school devoted to teaching Chicago’s gifted Black children.

Moving to New York, Bonds continued to perform and tour while producing a wide range of music, including classical compositions, theatrical scores and arrangements for traditional Black spirituals. Bonds also set several poems, including “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes, to music.

“Credo,” a seven-movement cantata scored for chorus, soprano and baritone soloists with piano, is Bond’s magnum opus. With subtle rhythmic and melodic shifts, plus an organic fusion of classical music, jazz and Black liturgical songs, the piece creates a layered engaging soundscape for the title prose poem by pioneering Black civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois.

Written in 1967, “Credo” cradled, enfolded and elevated Du Bois’ prose, a manifesto proclaiming that Black lives matter: “Especially do I believe in the Negro Race; in the beauty of its genius, the sweetness of its soul, and its strength in that meekness which shall yet inherit this turbulent earth…

In 1967 it seemed there was nothing that Bonds couldn’t do, no scene that the visionary educator, groundbreaking composer and accomplished pianist couldn’t break through — except America’s color and gender barriers. The fate of “Credo” illustrates this sad state of affairs. Although it was performed a handful of times, it lay unpublished until 2020.

“[Bonds] sets this text to music and submits it to her publisher,” Justin Smith says. “Her publisher says, ‘I’ll publish it but on one condition; you have to take out the word ‘Negro.’ It’s too confrontational. Replace it with the word ‘human’ …  ‘Especially do I believe in the human race.’”

Smith, assistant professor of music, director of the music program, and director of choral activities at Queens University of Charlotte, points out the disturbing parallels between this proposed “compromise” in 1967 and those the arguments countering “Black lives matter” with “All lives matter” today.

Read more: Charlotte Protests Show Different Approaches to Movement for Black Lives

“It [blunts] the point of ‘Credo’ and dilutes the whole idea of Du Bois’ text,” Smith says. “So, Bonds says, ‘No, I won’t do it.’ She stands by her artistic principles and the work is never published. It completely vanishes until … 50 years after her death.”

In a sense, Bonds also vanished, disappearing for decades from mainstream classical curricula and concerts. This is why Smith is collaborating with fellow Queens faculty member Jennifer Piazza-Pick and UNC Charlotte assistant professor of classical and contemporary voice Sequina DuBose on a symposium devoted to Margaret Bonds and her music.

The free three-night event takes place on the Queens University campus. It kicks off Friday, Nov. 3 with “Margaret Bonds: A Life in Music,” a lecture by John Michael Cooper, Ph.D., a professor of music and holder of the Margarett Root Brown chair in fine arts at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas.

Cooper, who will publish the first book-length biography of Margaret Bonds in 2024, will discuss Bonds’ life and musical contributions.

“[Cooper] has some primary source materials from Margaret Bonds that have never been heard before by anyone,” says Smith. “Some cutting-edge research and scholarship [will be] unveiled.”

A symposium for a neglected genius

The bulk of the symposium, beyond Friday night’s discussion, will be devoted to music, specifically Bonds’  two major contributions to posterity: her choral music and her art songs.

The symposium’s second night, Saturday, Nov. 4, offers “Margaret Bonds: The Songs,” an intimate performance in the style of a modern salon concert. Here, Piazza-Pick, DuBose and others will perform a selection of Bond’s songs.

Piazza-Pick, assistant professor of music/voice at Queens, says the program will primarily be comprised of Bonds’ art songs, compositions written for one voice with piano accompaniment. Bonds’ settings for poetry readings are included in this category. Some of her spiritual arrangements will also be performed.

A photo of Jennifer Piazza Pick smiling into the camera while wearing a royal blue dress.
Assistant professor of music/voice at Queens, Jennifer Piazza Pick (Photo by Britt Olsen Ecker).

Prior to performances on Saturday and Sunday, Cooper will provide short lectures to provide context to the music.

Along with DuBose and Piazza-Pick, the art-song concert will include Harrison Bumgardner, an adjunct voice instructor at Queens.

In addition to students and alumni coming in to sing, English professor Julie Funderburk and percussion major Christian Dodd will read some of the poetry accompanied by Bond’s musical settings. Also, university students in Melisa Gamez’s Digital Typography class are creating graphic designs to go along with some of the pieces to be performed.

For her part, Piazza-Pick is singing two art songs, Bonds’ poetry settings for “Sunset” by Paul Laurence Dunbar and “The Sea Ghost.”

“It’s poetry by Frank Dempster Sherman,” Piazza-Pick says. “Bonds’ setting is quite haunting.”

Like Piazza-Pick, DuBose has an extensive career as a singer, making her role debut as Donna Elvira in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” with Opera Carolina in 2022. She worked as a performing artist in New York City for 10 years before joining the faculty at UNC Charlotte in 2019.

For the Nov. 4 concert, DuBose is singing to Bonds’ setting for the spiritual “You Can Tell the World about This.”

She’ll also do a song called “Sonnet: I Know My Mind,” which sets the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay to music.

“The marriage of Bonds’ personality with St. Vincent Millay’s [proto]-feminism is really powerful,” Smith says.

Other performances on Nov. 4 include Bonds’ poetry settings for  “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost, “Sunset” by Paul Laurence Dunbar, “To a Brown Girl Dead” by Countee Cullen, and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes.

DuBose will also sing on “Margaret Bonds: The Choral Music,” on Sunday, Nov. 6. The final event of the symposium will feature Bonds’ choral works, including the southeastern premiere of her masterpiece, “Credo,” conducted by Smith.

“Credo” and its enduring message

Along with Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I have a dream” speech, W.E.B. Du Bois’ “Credo” is one of the world’s primary civil rights texts, Smith says.

“I would put this piece up as one of the great American choral works of the last century,” Smith says. “[Our] hope is that through performing it, it can get the recognition it deserves and … start to go out to more choirs.”

Indeed, in 2019 Smith launched Royal Voices of Charlotte, a choral group that tours and competes. The day after “Credo” is performed at the symposium, Royal Voices will start rehearsals to take the piece to the National Collegiate Choral Organization at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

To prepare for performing Bonds’ and Du Bois’ manifesto, DuBose dug into the text of “Credo.”

“I started thinking about the historical context [of the cantata] but also how apropos it is even now — this idea that social justice and human rights are not something that should be considered a luxury item, but something that is ordained by God,” DuBose says.

Once she has imprinted the piece’s transcendental message, DuBose turns to technique.

“Moving through the melody … allows me to live in a place where I shine as a soprano,” she says. “[Bonds] has these high A’s that just happen over and over again on this beautiful lyrical melody. I approach it the way I approach learning opera arias, because it’s technically demanding.”

In a way, DuBose’s approach is a merging of the spiritual and technical, a mixture of training and life experiences, she offers. In effect, it mirrors what Bonds accomplishes through her compositions.

Sequina Dubose (Photo by Mia Winston).

“Some of the ways that I interpret the melody … come naturally because of my gospel background and my church music background,” DuBose says. “The second movement is very gospel-influenced, even though it’s a classical setting.”

Therein lies a key to Bonds’ musical and social significance.

“The thing that makes her music special is also historically significant,” DuBose says. “[It’s] in her ability to fuse classical musical forms and the rudiments of classical music with elements from spirituals and gospel music, and bring her own lived experiences to the music.”

Empowering a new generation through music

DuBose’s background in the Black church may have given her a head start over her collaborators in interpreting and performing Bonds’ music.

Though the seed for the symposium first germinated when Smith interviewed Piazza-Pick for a position at Queens, where the two discovered their mutual love of Bonds’ work, Smith confesses that through all his schooling, he never heard of Bonds.

“[This led to] … a fascination with … how wonderful the music was, and how little exposure I’d had to it — but also a real sense of giving voice to someone who had been silenced,” Smith says. “We’ve seen our students react to this music exceptionally well, especially our students of color.”

Likewise, Piazza-Pick discovered Bonds on her own while researching women composers, including Bonds’ mentor Florence Price.

“I was digging into Margaret Bonds for my dissertation … and she’s just fantastic,” Piazza-Pick says. “Then as a choral musician, in the last few years, [I’ve seen] her ‘Credo’ finally starting to  come into the mainstream. People are listening to it and performing it.”

In contrast, DuBose says that while Bonds may have dropped off mainstream classical music’s radar for decades, in the Black church’s choral tradition she never really went away.

Inspired by her mother, who pursued a career as a gospel recording artist, DuBose sang in church and school choirs. There she heard Bonds’ choral music and spiritual arrangements, which she says remained popular in the Black choral tradition.

“There’s a rich choral tradition in the African American community, especially with HBCUs,” says the alumnus from Morgan State University, an HBCU in Baltimore, Maryland.

“I don’t think Bonds ever really went away for the Black community, and I think that the wider classical music community is just starting to get around to realizing what we all have always known,” DuBose says.

Margaret Bonds (Photo by Carl Van Vechten).

“I remember when [Black opera singer] Jessye Norman sang ‘You Can Tell the World About This.’ That arrangement is the one I will be singing on November 4. It’s cool to come full circle with that music.”

The revived interest in Bonds in a classical music scene traditionally dominated by dead white guys is a hopeful sign that the genre is changing for the better, Smith says.

“Mozart and Bach … all of that is exceptionally meaningful and beautiful to me,” Smith says. “That hasn’t been diminished, but I think because of Me Too and Black Lives Matter we’re starting to realize we ought to maybe extend the canon a bit.”

“Right now the classical music industry is definitely … learning to make space for everyone,” Piazza-Pick adds. “I don’t know where evolution will take us, but I think it’s exciting that we are evolving as musicians. I’m excited to see where our younger colleagues will take us.”

“The way we define what is valid as a classical work has changed, expanded and broadened,” DuBose says. “In terms of opportunity, classical music [needs] to become more accessible to young people and people of all levels of class and cultural backgrounds.”

DuBose believes there are now more opportunities for composers and performers of diverse backgrounds in the field, but musicians and educators still have some way to go in expanding audiences, and bringing the music to communities that have had little to no exposure to classical music.

“That’s where we have to roll up our sleeves at this point to remove some of the classism that is associated with classical music,” DuBose says.

To that end, the symposium is doing its part to bring attention to a previously silenced voice, a once-neglected composer who died in Los Angeles in 1972.

Smith believes there are many composers whose voices have been silenced, as well, either because of their race or gender or both. He says they are worth being rediscovered and celebrated.

“Bonds’ ‘Credo’ in particular is an unbelievably effective plea for a better world, one that is free of racial injustice, misogyny and discrimination,” Smith says. He hopes audiences can walk away from the Queens symposium with hope for the future.

“In the church we say, ‘The goal is that you leave different than you came,’” DuBose says. “Ideally when people come and hear Bonds’ music and experience it, it will open up their minds to the possibilities for themselves, for the arts community, for our world and for the next generation.”

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