• John Michael Cooper


Updated: Jun 8, 2021

Gustavo Dudamel to Conduct Margaret Bonds’s Montgomery Variations in July, 2021

This past weekend was filled with plenty of grim news – the stuff that headlines are made of.

But amidst that distressing din there were also some most welcome tidings: on July 15, 2021 Maestro Gustavo Dudamel will conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a new performance of “excerpts” from Margaret Bonds’s 1964 masterpiece, The Montgomery Variations – a set of programmatic variations on the spiritual “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me,” scored for large orchestra and lasting about twenty-three minutes in its entirety. Bonds wrote a detailed program for the piece, explaining how specific events in the Civil Rights movement had inspired her music. She also played the piece for renowned baritone and assistant to her friend Langston Hughes Raoul Abdul in 1964, and corresponded with Ned Rorem about it. Rorem, for his part, liked it and offered to send it to Leonard Bernstein, who was at the time Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. A copy of Bonds’s typed-up program ended up in the Leonard Bernstein papers, showing that Rorem shared the program, and possibly also the score, with the great conductor. (Thanks to Anthony Philpott for tipping me off to the existence of the Bernstein copy of the program!)

As it turned out, Bernstein never performed The Montgomery Variations. They were not published in Bonds’s lifetime and would have been lost, if not for the efforts of a collector who retrieved this and many other Bonds materials from beside a dumpster after they failed to sell in a book fair.[1] In December 2018 Paul McShee conducted the University of Connecticut Symphony Orchestra in an edition prepared with student help, and in August 2020 my source-critical edition was published as part of the Margaret Bonds Signature Series by Hildegard Publishing Company in association with Theodore Presser.

And now the Variations are about to be performed in Bonds’s adopted city (she lived in L.A. from 1967 to her death in 1972) by one of the finest U.S. orchestras and one of the world’s most famously brilliant and diligent conductors. The performance’s luster is only augmented by the rest of the program, which begins with Sergei Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony (1917) and closes with his Peter and the Wolf (1936) – and the narrator for the latter is the stunning Viola Davis!

To close, one big point in the form of a small one: the Philharmonic’s webpage for this concert repeats the oft-heard falsehood that the Montgomery Variations were written "during the Selma-to-Montgomery marches.” They were not. Bonds’s correspondence and the score show that the Variations were completed by the autumn of 1964, and the Selma-to-Montgomery marches were not even planned until the spring of 1965 (they took place on March 7, March 9, and March 21-24, 1965).

So what were The Montgomery Variations about? Bonds’s own programmatic explanation shows that the work was inspired by her fifteen-state southern tour with Eugene Brice and the Manhattan Melodaires (March 12 – April 11, 1964). What the composer saw and experienced during that tour inspired her to pen a series of musical snapshots and commentaries focusing on two other seminal events in the Civil Rights movement: (1) the Montgomery Bus Boycotts (5 December 1955 – 20 December 1956); and (2) the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing. The tragedy and moral consequence of the latter event (which took place in Birmingham, not Montgomery, on 15 September 1963) is well known; and the brilliance and strategy of the boycotts in establishing the effectiveness of nonviolent protest gained national recognition for the cause of desegregation, as well as buttressing the national prominence of Martin Luther King, jr., strengthening public support for the the NAACP and the SCLC, and spawning numerous other grassroots Civil Rights organizations. Accordingly, the Montgomery Variations’ enormous emotional range spans from determination and prayer (in the sense of what W.E.B. Du Bois called “the frenzy”), through courage, jubilation, and hope, to tragedy and – ultimately, in an eventual hoped-for future – peace and redemption. As Bonds puts it in her explanation of the Variations’ extraordinary finale (titled “Benediction”):

“A benign God, Father and Mother to all people, pours forth Love to His children – the good and the bad alike.”

That future didn’t come to pass during Bonds’s lifetime, and – as the power and political stature of the hate-filled insurrectionists who have just enjoyed a victory in the United States Senate demonstrates – it is still a thing of the future, even today. But in performing this long-silenced masterpiece, a musical chronicle and prayer for peace, Maestro Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic are renewing the hope that our world can benefit from what Margaret Bonds had to say back in 1964.

Here’s the L.A. Philharmonic’s page for purchasing tickets to this exciting and important concert.

[1] See Anne Midgette, “"A Forgotten Voice for Civil Rights Rises in Song at Georgetown." Washingtonpost.com, November 10, 2017. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints (accessed May 29, 2021). https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A514150337/OVIC?u=lom_sebewaingtl&sid=bookmark-OVIC&xid=20dfce35.

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