At 100, Composer Margaret Bonds Remains A Great Exception

Mar 3, 2013
Originally published on March 3, 2013 2:35 pm

Margaret Bonds, who died in 1972, is perhaps near the top of the very short list of African-American female composers. Thanks to her partnerships with Langston Hughes and soprano Leontyne Price and others, she's remembered in some circles as an important figure in American composition. But, mostly, she's been forgotten.

"It's amazing that people don't know who she was, although she was quite well known in her time," says Louise Toppin, an opera singer and a voice professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Toppin is hosting a symposium on Bonds this weekend, in honor of what would have been the composer's 100th birthday. Toppin spoke with NPR's Celeste Headlee about Bonds' impact on American culture as well as her own development as a musician.


Interview Highlights

On Bonds' Chicago upbringing

"She's born into the time where jazz musicians from the Great Migration have come to Chicago. You have classical musicians that are also there, so it's a very rich musical environment. The Chicago renaissance is going on, so you have writers, poets — everything is happening."

On "Troubled Water," Bonds' adaptation of a classic spiritual

"I actually learned it when I was about 10 years old, as a pianist. It was the first composition my piano teacher gave me. ... I was fascinated as a child to see a composition by an African-American, because I hadn't. As I started to learn the piece and the jazz influence, the extended techniques — you have to have a feel for jazz to play that piece, but you also get a good sense of what a fine pianist Margaret Bonds had to have been to play that."

On Bonds' lifelong collaboration with Langston Hughes

"They had a personal relationship, a friendship. They actually worked collaboratively for so long, and knew each other. And she loved the way he told the story of African-Americans and Harlem during this time, because one of the things that was important to Bonds was to promote not only her own compositions, but just the pride she had in African-American artists."

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Transcript

CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

Just a reminder, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee, and it's time now for music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HEADLEE: You're listening to work of composer, arranger and pianist Margaret Bonds. She died in 1972, and today would have been her 100th birthday. Now, Margaret Bonds is perhaps near the top of the very short list of African-American women classical composers. Thanks to her partnerships with people like poet Langston Hughes and soprano Leontyne Price, she's remembered in some circles as a very important figure in American composition. But for most of the country, she's been forgotten.

LOUISE TOPPIN: It's amazing that people don't know who she was, although she was quite well known in her time.

HEADLEE: That's Louise Toppin. She's an opera singer and a voice professor at the University of North Carolina, and she hosted a Margaret Bonds symposium there this weekend.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TOPPIN: Margaret Bonds was born in Chicago. Mother was a pianist, father was a physician. She's born into the time where you have jazz musicians from the Great Migration have come to Chicago. You have classical musicians that are also there, so it's a very rich musical environment. And she was noted as a pianist in her time, which, people have forgotten that part too.

She was the first African-American to play with the Chicago Symphony as a pianist on her senior year of college. That's extraordinary.

HEADLEE: What you're describing is her coming of age. But at the same time, that choice to not only become a composer but to compose classical music had to have been tough for her. Tell me exactly what led her decide to write classical music.

TOPPIN: She once described her stuff and some of her pieces as, it's jazzy, it's bluesy, it's spiritual and Tchaikovsky rolled into one. And she studied with Florence Price, the African-American symphonic composer. And so with the influence of Price and some of the others who were now bringing African-American spiritual and folk music into the symphonic tradition, she was actually growing up at a time when that exploration was beginning to happen.

HEADLEE: So let's talk a little bit about specific compositions: "Troubled Water." This is one of the most performed compositions that she wrote. You're going to hear - it's her take on the well-known spiritual "Wade in the Water." Tell me about this piece.

TOPPIN: It's a fabulous piece. And it was one of those that is published. What people don't know, so much of Margaret Bonds' words are still unpublished. I actually learned it when I was about 10 years old as a pianist. It was the first composition my piano teacher gave me.

HEADLEE: She gave you "Troubled Water?" You must have been quite the pianist at age...

(LAUGHTER)

TOPPIN: I was a pretty good pianist.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "TROUBLED WATER")

TOPPIN: She gave me that, and it - I was fascinated as a child to see a composition by an African-American because I hadn't. And as I started to learn the piece and the jazz influence, the extended techniques, you have to have a feel for jazz to play that piece, but you also get a good sense of what a fine pianist Margaret Bonds had to have been to play that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "TROUBLED WATER")

HEADLEE: I'm speaking with Louise Toppin. She teaches voice at the University of North Carolina. We're talking about composer and arranger Margaret Bonds who was born 100 years ago today. Let's talk a little bit more about her lifelong collaboration with Langston Hughes. These two were very good friends, and she wrote many things based on his poems.

So first, let's take a listen here. We'll begin with Langston Hughes himself reading from his poem "I, Too."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LANGSTON HUGHES: I, too, sing America. I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes, but I laugh and eat well and grow strong.

HEADLEE: So now let's hear how that transformed once Margaret Bonds set it to music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I, TOO")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) I, too, sing America. I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes...

HEADLEE: What did Langston Hughes like about Margaret Bonds' settings?

TOPPIN: I think that because they had a personal relationship, a friendship, they actually worked collaboratively for so long and knew each other. And she loved the way he told the story of African-Americans in Harlem during this time because one of the things that was important to Bonds was to promote not only her own compositions but just the pride she had in African-American artists.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I, TOO")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Nobody'll dare say to me, eat in the kitchen then.

HEADLEE: A lot of people were drawn to her as an arranger. Leontyne Price commissioned her as an arranger among many, many others.

TOPPIN: Absolutely.

HEADLEE: She often crafted works specifically for who was going to be performing them. And I think that's true of the things she composed for Leontyne Price. Can you explain what we hear in these pieces that was specifically for Leontyne?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HE'S GOT THE WHOLE WORLD IN HIS HANDS")

TOPPIN: "He's Got the Whole World In His Hands," for instance, she explores the richness of Leontyne's ability to communicate in the lower register.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HE'S GOT THE WHOLE WORLD IN HIS HANDS")

LEONTYNE PRICE: (Singing) He's got the whole world in His hands. He's got the whole world in His hands.

TOPPIN: And then she gives you this wonderful climactic last section when she says: He's got you and me right in His hands. She knew how to build that energy and that enthusiasm to the highest point of Leontyne Price's range. And she gives her a moment to really let go and bring the energy that you found in the church.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HE'S GOT THE WHOLE WORLD IN HIS HANDS")

PRICE: (Singing) He's got you and me right in His hands. He's got you and me right in His hands. He's got you and me right in His hands. He's got the whole world in His hands. He's got the whole world in His hands.

(APPLAUSE)

HEADLEE: Let me ask you a personal question because, you know, the real tragedy for me, Louise, is that it's not like we now are surrounded by a plethora of African-American female composers even now.

TOPPIN: Right. Mm-hmm.

HEADLEE: Margaret Bonds is one of the rare few even today.

TOPPIN: Yes.

HEADLEE: Describe for me that moment when you were 10 years old and your piano teacher sets a piece of music before you that's not Bach and is not Mozart and wasn't written by somebody from long ago or who looks nothing like you but was another dark-skinned American woman. What was that like?

TOPPIN: The fact that I can remember, it tells you the impact that it had on me. I was floored. It set me on the path to find out more about Margaret Bonds, believe it or not, as a child. So that pride and that interest in her started my path of looking for more of her stuff but also looking for women composers and recognizing that they are a rare commodity, but they have a voice in our musical culture and musical life. And she made very strong statements with the music that she wrote.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HEADLEE: Louise Toppin teaches voice at the University of North Carolina Department of Music. We've been talking about composer and arranger Margaret Bonds. She was born 100 years ago today. You can find a link to the Margaret Bonds symposium at our website, nprmusic.org. Miss Toppin, thank you so much.

TOPPIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.