Have you heard the “Montgomery Variations”? It’s an orchestral work written at the height of the civil rights movement, dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr., by an accomplished African American composer-activist who was committed to spreading the word about the black experience in America in any way that she — yes, SHE — could.
You haven’t heard it, though, because it has never been performed. In fact, until recently, nobody knew it existed. Because although its composer, Margaret Bonds, who died in 1972 at 59, was on some people’s radar — not least because of her long and deep friendship with Langston Hughes — her papers were nearly forgotten. One chunk of her archive was found in a storage locker belonging to her only child, a daughter, who, like her mother, died without a will. The other chunk was found by a music dealer after a book fair. Someone had clearly been unable to sell it, or thought nobody would be interested, and left a large cardboard box filled with Bonds’s notebooks, scores and programs next to a dumpster, waiting to be thrown out.
The dealer took the box, and it landed, along with the rest of Bonds’s archive, in the special collections of the library at Georgetown. And on Wednesday, the Georgetown University Concert Choir is kicking off a year-long celebration of Bonds and her work. This first concert features “Ballad of the Brown King,” a 1954 Christmas cantata in nine movements with texts by Hughes, folding a range of musical styles into the story of the wise man — one of the three Magi of Christian tradition — who came from Africa. The composer wanted to “find people in the chain of African American history,” says Anna Celenza, a music professor at Georgetown, and show that “it’s their story, too. . . . Christianity wasn’t just something forced on the slaves. We were part of this history all along.”
“Ballad of the Brown King” had enough success that Bonds and Hughes set out to write an Easter cantata, “Simon Bore the Cross,” also pulling out an African biblical motif: Simon of Cyrene, from North Africa, figures in the Gnostic Gospels as a man who carried Jesus’ cross on the way to Calvary. (Both Paul Robeson and Sidney Poitier played Simon in earlier dramatic interpretations of the tale.) But the piece was never completed or was lost. So, at least, it was believed, until Celenza began going through the contents of the box found by the dumpster, and came across a complete piano score of “Simon Bore the Cross.”
“I’d get chills,” Celenza says. “All scholars think that this has disappeared. This was the whole thing, in her hand.”
So the second part of Georgetown’s Bonds focus, in the spring of 2018, will be the world premiere performances of this work, which Frederick Binkholder, an associate professor and the artistic director of the Georgetown concert choir, has edited into a performance version. Not much work, he said, was required. “It’s one of the once-in-a-lifetime events for a musician,” Binkholder says, “when you’re looking at something [unknown] and going, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is magical.’ ”
Bonds grew up in an affluent family in Chicago, in a community of black artists and musicians. Her father, the physician Monroe Alpheus Majors, wrote the book “Noted Negro Women: Their Triumphs and Activities,” to raise the confidence and consciousness of black women — in 1893. Though her parents divorced when she was young, her father remained an important and supportive figure in her life, as did her mother, the musician Estelle C. Bond, whose musical tutelage of her daughter and friendships with prominent black artists such as Will Marion Cook led Margaret to study with Florence Price, excel in music and win, at the age of 19, the Wanamaker Prize for one of her songs, “Sea Ghost.” (Price won the prize for her first symphony that same year.) Initially trained as a pianist, Bonds continued work in both fields during her studies at Northwestern, where she encountered the full force of this country’s racial tensions and prejudices for the first time. Bonds didn’t often publicly voice her frustrations, but her letters in the Georgetown archive, Celenza says, are revealing.
“When you read her letters,” Celenza says, “her biggest issue wasn’t so much being African American but being a woman. She really couldn’t break that barrier.”
Bonds was less concerned with being recognized as a classical artist than with writing music to be heard. She was happy to write in a range of styles — pop songs, television work, music for amateur choirs. To the extent that her work is known at all today to a wider public, it’s largely through her arrangements of spirituals, recorded by the great soprano Leontyne Price, among others. And at the end of Bonds’s life, somewhat adrift after the death of Hughes — whom she saw, Celenza says, “as a kind of lifeline to her continuing a creative life” — and drinking heavily, she moved to California and did studio work in Hollywood.
“She very much fits into the paradigm of the artist-activist,” says Tammy Kernodle, a professor of musicology at Miami University in Ohio who has done extensive work on African American music as well as gender issues. “I’ve always asked the question of other historians, why we don’t talk about Margaret Bonds the way we talk about Undine Smith Moore or Florence Price or Dorothy Rudd Moore,” other significant African American women composers. “Going through that [Georgetown] collection, I got a sense why. [Bonds] wasn’t restricting herself to certain spaces. She didn’t take a university job like Undine Smith Moore. Margaret Bonds is trying to work in some other aspects of the industry.” But by trying to reach beyond the classical-music bubble, Bonds also found the classical music world overlooked her.
Her catholicism of taste leads to a stylistic mélange in some of her works; the “Ballad of the Brown King,” Binkholder says, has traces of jazz and blues and calypso. “It doesn’t sound like a collage to me,” Celenza says. The various styles are “all melded in her music but in a seamless way.”
“She knows what she was doing in terms of voice leading and harmonic progressions,” Binkholder says. “The effect is masterful.”
With the discovery of “Simon Bore the Cross,” the time would seem ripe for a recording of both cantatas — except that, because Bonds has no survivors, no one knows who should hold the copyright to her works, an obstacle to a professional recording or even a paid performance. (The Georgetown performances are free, as is the first performance of “Simon Bore the Cross” that the choir will give at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage on Feb. 24, during Black History Month.)
But Bonds’s certainly seems like a voice whose time has come. “Margaret Bonds was a significant voice in advancing civil rights and black consciousness in the concert hall,” Kernodle says. “When you look at American classical music from the black side, it’s always in the ’60s, and it’s always male composers” who are mentioned. “Margaret Bonds is giving those same representations a decade before that.”
While she’s happy about “Simon Bore the Cross,” Kernodle is holding out for a performance, somewhere, someday, of the “Montgomery Variations.”
“I would really love to hear that piece done,” she says. “I think it would be transformative as far as what we think of as black orchestra music in the 1950s and ’60s.”
The Ballad of the Brown King will be performed Wednesday night at Georgetown’s Davis Performing Arts Center; admission is free. “Simon Bore the Cross” will be performed at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage on Feb. 24 and at Georgetown on April 30.