FLORENCE PRICE AND MARGARET BONDS: A MUSICAL SISTERHOOD In the summer of 1933 as the Negro Renaissance movement began to spread its ideological tentacles beyond the geographic and cultural boundaries of Harlem, Florence Price and Margaret Bonds stood on the precipice of music history, shifting the context of who was heard in American concert halls. The June concert of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra entitled “The Negro in Music”—featured as part of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair—consisted of the debut performance of Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E minor and pianist Bonds performing John Alden Carpenter’s Concertino. It marked the first time a major American orchestra performed a symphony written by a black female composer and, in the case of Bonds’ performance, the first instance in which a black concert pianist appeared as a soloist with the CSO. The concert would ultimately mark the beginning of a period of activity that not only linked the professional and musical lives of Bonds and Price, but also centered them within a larger movement focused on the elevation of black identity and black historical narratives through music.
The music you will hear during this concert not only illuminates the vastness and diversity of Price and Bonds’ oeuvres, but it also brings into focus the continuum of intellectual activity that was nurtured in the interiority of black communities during the early 20th century. Price was born Florence Beatrice Smith in 1882 in Little Rock, Arkansas. All aspects of her early life disrupted the narratives that are often projected about black life in the post-Reconstruction south, as she grew up in a culture of affluence. Her talent was acknowledged very early as evidenced by the presentation of her first recital at the age of four. Florence’s interest in music during these early years extended beyond piano to include lessons in organ and composition. She continued these studies at the New England Conservatory, where she came under the tutelage of acclaimed composer George Chadwick. Though she remained active as a performer, Price did not compose extensively following her graduation in 1906. Instead, she returned to the South, where she worked at two local black colleges in Arkansas before joining the faculty at Clark University in Atlanta. But professional and personal achievement was not enough to shield Price and her family from the racial violence that pervaded the South, so in 1927, Florence, her husband Thomas, and their two children moved to Chicago. She immediately began engaging with the extensive ecosystem that had sustained and promoted black concert music there since the 1890s. It was through organizations like the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM), the Chicago Music Association, and the Sunday musicales held at Estella Bonds’ home that the composer first connected with the black women who six years later would be instrumental in the CSO performance of her first symphonic work. It was also because of this ecosystem that she first met a young Margaret Bonds, a young woman who would not only perform her music in subsequent years, but also follow in her compositional footsteps.
Born in 1913 in Chicago, Margaret Bonds’ early years were defined by her engagement with the community of black intellectuals and artisans that defined Chicago’s black elite. Like Price, Bonds was identified early on as a musical prodigy, first receiving piano lessons from her mother, Estella. Margaret’s development, however, was jettisoned by her more direct engagement with the black churches, conservatories, benevolent and social organizations, and arts-based organizations that sustained Chicago’s black concert aesthetic. Also key to her development was the cultural activity that took place in her mother’s home. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Estella Bonds’ home at 6652 Wabash Avenue had become the epicenter of Chicago’s budding Renaissance movement, serving as part boardinghouse for those who needed assistance, food pantry for the tired and hungry that passed through Chicago, and a cultural salon where aspiring artists engaged with composers such as Will Marion Cook, Noble Sissle, and William Dawson; concert artists like Lillian Evanti, Abbie Mitchell; and noted writers, painters, and sculptors. By the time Price arrived in 1927, black Chicago was already uttering premonitions of a promising career as a concert pianist for Margaret Bonds. However, the young musician’s aspirations extended much further. Bonds briefly studied harmony with Price, and arranging with Dawson, but experienced significant growth in the development of her compositional voice during her years at Northwestern University. By 1932, her work began to garner some attention, as evidenced by her work Sea Ghost winning first place in the song category in that year’s Wanamaker competition. As the decade and the Great Depression stretched on, both would draw inspiration from the diversity and vibrancy of Chicago’s music scene.
Chicago proved to be a significant ignition point for Price’s creativity, since in the 26 years she resided there, she composed the majority of the 300-plus works attributed to her. Her compositions, when examined within the context of the Renaissance movement, reflected how a generation of black composers centered themselves musically within the framework of American musical nationalism. Although this is evident throughout much of Price’s oeuvre, it is her symphonic works that most directly show alignment with Renaissance-movement ideology, which advanced the notion of a new, more modern form of black art that reflected the mastery of Eurocentric compositional form while amplifying a representation of African identity using black folk idioms. Price’s symphonies display this with their melodic references to Negro spirituals and the use of rhythmic patterns drawn from the Juba, a black folk-dance idiom. Spirituals figured heavily in Price’s representations of sonic blackness, and they were central in her amplification of black historical narratives. But much of Price’s music also spoke to its function and utility within her life as a musician operating within a larger community. One can glean understanding of this through her organ works, which figured heavily into her role as teacher, church musician, and recitalist. She wrote some two dozen works for organ, and they range from short pieces such as Retrospection, written for beginning organ students, to works such as Adoration, which were used for worship services. Large-scale works such as Passacaglia and Fugue and Sonata No. 1 were often programmed on Price’s recitals.
It should be noted that despite a series of acclaimed performances during the 1930s, Price struggled in fielding interest in her orchestral works beyond the Chicago area. The lingering impact of the Great Depression, as well as the racial and gendered politics of America’s concert scene stunted her upward mobility as a composer. But she persisted in her work, and thanks in part to a network of concert artists and music organizations Price’s solo and chamber repertory was regularly programmed. This group included not only local musicians, but established concert artists like Roland Hayes, Lillian Evanti, Harry T. Burleigh, and Marian Anderson, who debuted many of Price’s songs. It was Anderson who linked Price directly to a larger movement that challenged discriminatory practices in America’s concert halls and to the subsequent black civil rights movement, when she performed My Soul is Anchored in the Lord during her historic 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial. However, Price’s sudden death in 1953, shortly before the blossoming of the mid-century black civil rights movement, leaves questions as to how she and her music would have factored into this movement. Bonds, however, not only went on to center her music within the nexus of the movement, but provided an archetype of how the black composer, black concert artist, and black concert music could serve the larger cause of racial justice. In the years that followed Bonds’ celebrated performance at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, she not only continued to concertize, but found substantial work writing pop songs, producing jazz arrangements, and writing for theater productions. The eclecticism of sound that framed these different professional settings provided some of the primary emblems that mark Bonds’ compositional voice—beautiful melodies, sensitive settings of poetry, rich and colorful harmonic settings, and complex rhythmic patterns. Her navigation of diverse professional spaces and a growing social circle that came to include poet and activist Langston Hughes significantly shaped Bonds’ perceptions about the social responsibility of black artisans.
The alignment of Bonds’ music with the progressive political activity that became the mid-century black civil rights movement can first be traced back to her professional connections with the Negro Theatre Project in Chicago and the infamous nightclub Café Society in New York. It was in these environments that Bonds’ radical consciousness surrounding blackness blossomed, and she gradually morphed into the persona of artist-activist. In the 1950s, when some black composers struggled to couple black idioms with atonality and serialism, Bonds continued to nest black cultural narratives in neo-Romantic settings tinged with harmonies, rhythms, and nuances drawn from gospel, blues, and jazz. Prominent examples include art songs such as The Negro Speaks of Rivers and the Dream Portraits, which featured poetry written by Langston Hughes, spiritual settings such as He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands, You Can Tell the World, and her signature solo piano work, The Spiritual Suite.
It was also during this period that Bonds became immersed in cultural and intellectual circles that propelled the black liberation movement into a larger nexus of campaigns that challenged discriminatory practices throughout the South. Like many, she was inspired by the activism of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and engaged in benefit concerts that financed the work of movement organizations. Many of her compositions written during the late 1950s and early 1960s bear the influence of the movement, especially the cantatas Ballad of the Brown King, Simon Bore the Cross, Montgomery Variations, and Credo. Ballad of the Brown King and Simon Bore the Cross are both large-scale choral works that amplify the biblical legacies of African people by focusing respectively on the Magi who visited Christ shortly after his birth, and on Simon of Cyrene who was ordered by the Romans to bear Christ’s cross as he was marched to his crucifixion. Montgomery Variations, one of the few orchestral works in Bonds’ oeuvre, historicizes the first two chapters of the mid-century black civil rights struggle through a musical program that surveys the beginning of the movement in 1955 with the Montgomery Bus Boycott and ends with the uncertainty spurred by the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. Structuring the work as a series of variations based on the spiritual I Want Jesus to Walk with Me, Bonds situates it clearly in the context of the protest music that extended out of the movement during this period. The same is true for her last large-scale work, Credo, which draws its text from W.E.B. DuBois’ 1904 poem bearing the same name. By 1972, the year of Bonds’ sudden death, the imprint of her bold and radical representations of blackness through her music was evident in the music and consciousness of the emerging generation of black composers.
The intertwining of the musical legacies of Florence Price (1882–1953) and Margaret Bonds (1913–1972) that this concert promotes does not negate the individual significance of their respective compositional voices, professional achievements, or their respective perspectives on how black concert music could advance racial uplift and reconciliation. Rather, this coupling challenges the notion that Price and Bonds were cultural anomalies lost to time, only to be “rediscovered” in recent years. No, if nothing more, this concert illuminates how these women were part of larger genealogical lines of black women musicians, intellectuals, educators, and artisans that served the needs of their communities in ways that reflected ritualized cycles of cultural preservation and progression that extend back to their ancestral homeland of Africa.
Dr. Tammy L. Kernodle is a University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Music at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio specializing in African American music.