Margaret Jeanette Allison Majors was born on March 3, 1913, in Chicago, Illinois. Her father, Monroe Majors, was a physician, lecturer, and author. Her mother, Estella Bonds, was a trained musician who taught piano. In 1917, Margaret's last name was changed to Bonds after her parents divorce.
Margaret Bonds began studying piano with her mother at a very early age. By the time she was eight, she had progressed to studying at the Coleridge-Taylor Music School where her mother and Tom Theodore Taylor served on the faculty. In 1926, Bonds started studying composition with Chicago newcomers William Dawson and Florence Price (with whom she also studied piano). Bonds was also a charter member of the Junior Music Division of the National Association of Negro Musicians.
In 1929, she was admitted to Northwestern University. She studied piano with Emily Boettiche Bogue and composition with Arnie Oldburg and Dean Carl Beecher. While at Northwestern, she was allowed to study but not allowed to live in or use their facilities because she was black.
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
In 1932, her composition “Sea Ghost,” won the prestigious Wanamaker award. Her teacher Florence Price had also received two wanamaker awards for her Symphony No.1 and piano sonata. That same year, she became the first African American to perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
In 1933, Bonds had completed her Bachelors in Music and received the Rosenwald Scholarship for graduate study at Northwestern. Upon graduation, Margaret Bonds worked in Chicago performing, composing and collaborating with writer and poet, Langston Hughes. She met Hughes in 1936 and toured in Wisconsin and Iowa with singer Katherine Van Buren, while studying orchestration with Albert Nölte. Bonds also attempted to start the Allied Arts Academy, which aimed at providing musical education for black youth in Chicago. Unfortunately it was unsuccessful, so Margaret had decided to relocate to New York in 1939. In 1940, Bonds married a probation officer named Lawrence Richardson and would later have a daughter.
Life in New York
Within a year of her arrival, she had become actively involved in the musical theater life, both as a composer and pianist. Bonds also studied composition privately with famed composer Roy Harris and piano with Djane Herz at Julliard. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, Bonds toured both as part of a piano duo and as a soloist performing a variety of classical and contemporary works. One of her most recorded compositions from this period is “Troubled Water”.
Maya Angelou describes Troubled Water as one of Margaret Bonds' masterpieces. This work is mixture of jazz, blues, and gospel.
Margaret and Langston
During the 1950’s, Bonds composed a number of works using the poems of Langston Hughes. Some of her works include, Songs of the Seasons and Three Dream Portraits, as well as music for the Hughes play, Shakespeare in Harlem. The debut of her Christmas cantata, Ballad of the Brown King, was televised by CBS in December 1960. Commissions continued to come her way, including requests from singers Leontyne Price and Betty Allen. One of Bonds’ most well known settings was “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand,” composed for Price in 1963.
Move to Los Angeles
In 1967, Bonds moved to Los Angeles after the death of her friend Langston Hughes. She left behind her husband and adult daughter. She worked with the Los Angeles Inner City Cultural Center and Repertory Theater, and she offered music instruction to community youth in the basement of the center.
Death and Legacy
Bonds struggled in her personal life after the deaths of her mother and friend, Langston Hughes. She relied on alcohol more to deal with the depression. Margaret Bonds died on April 26, 1972 of a heart attack. A month after her death, Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic premiered her Credo for chorus and orchestra.