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  • Writer's pictureJohn Michael Cooper


Updated: Nov 12, 2022

Four Early Performances of Margaret Bonds’s Spiritual Suite

[This note is about Margaret Bonds’s Spiritual Suite – the surviving magnum opus of her piano output, and a groundbreaking composition in many ways. Although the Suite’s last movement was published separately in 1967 with the new title Troubled Water by Sam Fox Music (New York), the other two movements and the Suite as a whole have long been surrounded by questions. Some of those questions can now be answered – although please note: the answers raise further questions!]

In mid-2020, as the U.S. was nearing the darkest days of a horrifically turbulent political season and a pandemic that had major cities using freezer trucks as morgues, veteran Margaret Bonds champion Louise Toppin offered a beam of hope to musical hearts: the first publication of Bonds’s piano magnum opus, the three-movement Spiritual Suite. The work had until then been surrounded by mystery: although Bonds had published its third movement, “Troubled Water” (based on the spiritual Wade in the Water) in 1967 (New York: Sam Fox), the first two movements had remained unpublished. And despite a thorough and important discussion of the suite as a whole in Helen Walker-Hill’s chapter on Bonds in her seminal collection of essays, From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and Their Music (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002) (pp. 166-68, 173), questions still abounded about the Spirituals Suite. When did it become a three-movement suite? When was it first performed in that guise? Was that performance given by Margaret Bonds herself? And if not, when (if at all) did she perform the three movements together?

We can now answer most of those questions, at least provisionally. This post summarizes the coalescence of the Suite’s three movements into a new whole that received a culminating performance by Margaret Bonds herself on February 12, 1963:

  • When did it become a three-movement suite? Most authors have evaded this slippery question, with guesses ranging from “1950s” (Walker-Hill, p. 166) to 1967 (the year of the publication of Troubled Water). Margaret Bonds performed two movements – “The Bells” and “Group Dance Based on the Spiritual ‘Wade in the Water’” (which eventually became “Troubled Water") – in her Town Hall concert on February 7, 1952. She continued performing those two movements – usually separately – throughout the 1950s. But that changed sometime in the early 1960s . . .

  • When was the “Spiritual Suite” first performed with all three movements? On March 18, 1962, Florida-born, Miami-based pianist Dr. Joan Holley (1926-2015) gave the complete three-movement suite, now including its first movement (“The Valley of the Dry Bones,” based on James Rosamond Johnson’s “Dem Bones”), its New York premiere in her fourth Town Hall performance. That performance had a prehistory, though – for Bonds and Langston Hughes both knew Holley (well enough, in fact, for Bonds to mention her by her first name only when, on March 5, 1962, she told Hughes that she was sending him “a pair of tickets to Joan’s concert,” and to affectionately refer to her as “Dr. Joan” in numerous other letters). More importantly, Holley’s Town Hall program was reportedly “identical” to a benefit recital she gave in Miami at the Coconut Grove Baptist Church on February 16, 1962 (The Miami Herald, February 10, 1962).

In other words, the public premiere of the three-movement version was given by Holley, not Bonds, and it occurred on February 16, 1962.

  • Did Margaret Bonds ever perform the entire “Spiritual Suite”? Oh, yes –and there is great beauty in the occasion for that performance. It took place the following year, in the context of a Gala Emancipation Concert hosted by Fine Arts Committee of the Manhattan Council of the National Council of Negro Women, held at Salem Methodist Church in Harlem.

(The New York Public Library, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, (Margaret Bonds Papers, shelfmark MG 873 Box 4, folder 9.)

The year, of course, was the centennial of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and the concert was held on February 12, Lincoln’s birthday. The program as a whole was a beautiful one, with Nora Holt acting as historian and a cast of veritable dignitaries. It began with the Star Spangled Banner, included music by Leslie Adams, Richard M. Brown, Harry Burleigh, Eva Jessye, Hall Johnson, and Inez Skeete, among others, as well as Bonds, and performances by Bonds and other notables. It closed with the Johnson brothers’ Lift Every Voice and Sing (about which I encourage you to watch Marvin V. Curtis’s eloquent and inspirational message at this year’s conference of the African American Art Song Alliance).

And it included all three movements of Bonds’s Spiritual Suite.

It was a big day, and beautiful, and important in so many ways. Bonds’s close friend and collaborator Langston Hughes knew that: he sent Bonds a telegram warning her that she needed to “beware or we will be celebrating four great B’s – Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Bonds":

(Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Langston Hughes Papers, sheflmark JWJ MSS 26 Box 16, folder 377)

That Bonds’s magisterial suite, which boldly broke down numerous musical barriers to freedom of musical expression and the absolute equality of idioms ranging from the virtuosic piano suite through the spiritual and jazz and blues, should receive its first (and, so far as I know, only) documented complete performance at the hands of the racial-justice warrior who penned it on that occasion is beyond fitting – it is poetic.

I’ll write about the larger context and follow-through on this historic moment elsewhere later on. Stay tuned!


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