THE PROGRAM OF THE MONTGOMERY VARIATIONS
Updated: Nov 13
The Minnesota Orchestra Has Recorded an Orchestral Masterpiece by Margaret Bonds
[Update 11/13/21: The Minnesota Orchestra's recording is now live on YouTube, tracked by movement:]
This past weekend, one of America’s great orchestras, the Minnesota Orchestra, made the first professional recording of Margaret Bonds’s (1913-72) The Montgomery Variations. The recording, which should be available, OPEN ACCESS, online within a few weeks, is a milestone in the recovery of one of the ever-ingenious composer’s masterpieces that had little chance to be heard during Bonds’s lifetime because of her race and her sex, and that (for the same reasons) have been marginalized to the point of near-oblivion by the predominantly White industries of U.S. classical music and music historiography.
Bonds heard the work performed just once during her lifetime, at a little-publicized performance conducted by legendary choral conductor Albert McNeil in 1967. Since then it’s been performed just a handful of times – always either using an unauthorized edition or in excerpt.
It will be silent no longer. In 2020, deep in the heart of the COVID-19 lockdown, Hildegard Publishing Company (Worcester, Mass.) published The Montgomery Variations for the first time – a source-critical edition released with the full authorization of the composer’s heirs and distributed through Theodore Presser.
So while the release of the Minnesota Orchestra’s performance is still in the offing, I thought I’d share the program that Bonds herself wrote to explain what The Montgomery Variations is about and what the music describes in each of its seven movements. You may have heard that the work was composed in 1965 for the third Selma-to-Montgomery freedom march, but that story is false. Instead, The Montgomery Variations was written before September 1964 (five months before the plans for the Selma-to-Montgomery march were hatched), after Bonds’s two tours of the South with baritone Eugene Brice and the Manhattan Melodaires. The work is about the crucial first decade of the mature civil-rights movement. It begins with the Montgomery Bus Boycott and then moves through the spread of the freedom movement, but crashes into the devasting violence of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing that killed Addie Mae Collins (14), Cynthia Wesley (14), Carole Robertson (14) and Carol Denise McNair (11) in Birmingham on 15 September 1963. After a deeply moving “lament,” the work closes with a “benediction” that offers of vision of peace and racial justice that was never achieved in Bonds’s day – and remains a thing of the future today.
Here’s Bonds’s program (adapted from my forthcoming book on The Montgomery Variations):
 Booth Family Center for Special Collections in the Georgetown University Libraries, Washington, D.C. (shelfmark GTM-130530, Box 5, folder 6)