• John Michael Cooper


With a Playlist

Before 1934, Margaret Bonds publicly programmed only all-White recitals. After 1934 she never did that again. Why the change?

In the Summer of 2019 I made my first (ten years’ belated) trip to the Deering Library at Northwestern University to examine that library’s archival holdings pertaining to Margaret Bonds. Charla Burlenda Wilson, Northwestern University’s Inaugural Archivist for the Black Experience, was incredibly helpful in preparing the materials and answering questions along the way. Among countless valuable documents that show us something of the interests and pursuits of the young Margaret Bonds during her time there (1929-34; aged sixteen to twenty-one) are four recital programs of special significance.

The earliest is from a duo recital that she and violinist Valeria Chap gave at Chicago’s historic Berean Baptist Church on November 9, 1931, in the fall semester of Bonds’s junior year at Northwestern. The next, dated 30 March 1932, appears to have been Bonds’s junior recital proper; this program was given in Northwestern’s Music Hall at Orrington Ave. and University Place. The third, which is the main subject of this post, is from Bonds’s senior recital, which was given on 24 April 1933. And the fourth is from her Master’s recital, held on June 4, 1934. Her teacher all the way through was Emily Boettcher Bogue (1907-92), who joined the Northwestern faculty the same year Bonds did: they learned the ropes of the institution at exactly the same time.

There is a great deal to say about these programs and what they say about the education and interests of Margaret Bonds during these important years at what Bonds would later call “his terribly prejudiced university, this terribly prejudiced place” (Helen Walker-Hill, From Spirituals to Symphonies, 156) – more than this little post (and plenty of graduate theses) could ever cover. But here are a few – followed by a playlist so that you can hear what Margaret Bonds played for the fortunate audience in her senior recital:

  • First: two pieces found in these programs remained a staple of her recitalist persona for the rest of her career: Robert Schumann’s Papillons, Op. 2 (1831) and, more remarkably, César Franck’s Prelude, Chorale, & Fugue (1884). Both works, notably, are pianistically challenging examples of the sort of cyclic procedure that would be important to Bonds’s style later on.

  • Second: while the programs of the two junior-year recitals and the Master’s recital are all conservative and, y'know, academic, the program of the senior recital is quite contemporary (check out the playlist below): its earliest compositions – those by Debussy, Dohnányi, and Franck – date from the 1880s and 1890s (although the Debussy was a relatively recent discovery in Bonds’s time, having first been publicly performed in 1919 and published in 1920). Aside from those three, the compositions were written in 1920 (Carpenter), 1926 (Berners and Schulhoff), and 1927 (Villa-Lobos). On the whole, it is a conspicuously modernist program.

  • Third: the composers are all White, all male, and mostly European. This is not surprising – indeed, we all know well that today, eighty-seven years down the road, composers of color are marginalized in concert programs, performers of color are outrageously outnumbered in concert life, and narratives of music history and textbooks of music theory unaccountably engage in what Prof. Philip Ewell has termed colorasure. Indeed, the conspicuously conservative program of Bonds's Master’s recital invites speculation that perhaps she took some heat for that adventurous senior recital.

So yeah, the Whiteness of Bonds’s recital programs is not surprising – especially since Black folk were evidently still only a small minority of the Northwestern student body in the 1930s and there were no Black faculty members. But if it’s not surprising, it is important.

Because as soon as Bonds was out on her own, she corrected that Whiteness – consistently, imaginatively, persuasively. Her earliest concert programs after her graduation from the Master’s program, dating from 1935, feature African American spirituals, her own compositions, and (occasionally) others’ settings of poetry of her friend Langston Hughes. The Allied Arts Academy, which she founded and ran for one short but remarkable year in 1938-39, programmed about half Black music, half White. By the time the Margaret Bonds Chamber Society was founded in New York in the late 1950s, that organization was devoted specifically to promoting musicians of color and music by composers of color.

Given that Bonds set about programmatic integration immediately after her time at Northwestern, it’s tempting to imagine that her later remarks about the University’s terrible prejudice were born in part of a curricular environment that, in one way or another, compelled her to program only White composers. That's not to say that she didn't love Northwestern dearly -- she did. And she was delighted to receive its Distinguished Alumni Award in 1967. When she wrote to the Chair of the Alumni Achievement Awards Committee to acknowledge receipt of that award, she said that she was "ever grateful to [her] Alma Mater where she received the necessary ethical and scholastic background to enable [her] to pursue the development of [her] God-given talent" (Georgetown University Margaret Bonds papers). But -- and perhaps this is a part of the "ethical . . . background," in an inverse sense -- she took its programmatic prejudice to heart and devoted the rest of her life to lessening the chances of others being subjected to "whitewashing" classical music and its history. Perhaps the experience of performing musical celebrations of Whiteness in order to meet her curricular requirements instilled in Margaret Bonds a sense of ethical responsibility to do better once she was out on her own.

Enough. Listen, though, to this program and behold what Margaret Bonds, age 20, dared to present as her senior recital at Northwestern back in 1934. (The Berners Hornpipe starts at 13’51” in this recording; the program notes that Emily Boettcher Bogue played the orchestral parts on a second piano): https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLhFbPxNQgMs290qTVKwa4I2dLwPhaKx1i

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