As a composer, pianist, and teacher, Margaret Bonds was fortunate to receive wide acclaim in her own lifetime. Her talents as a composer were lavished on such varied genres as choral works, orchestral works, piano pieces, popular songs, and art songs. Having been personally acquainted with the most significant Black artists of her day, she learned a great deal about the voice through association with such great singers as Abbie Mitchell, Hortense Love, Adele Addison, Betty Allen, Eugene Brice, Lawrence Winters, Carol Brice, and Leontyne Price. These ties coupled with her extraordinary talents as a concert pianist lend themselves well to the craftsmanship found in her various songs and spiritual arrangements.
The most popular of her songs happen to be the ones that are most accessible in publication. Three Dream Portraits, a song cycle of poetry by Langston Hughes, is popularly available in the Anthology of Art Songs by Black American Composers. It was originally published by G. Ricordi in 1959. The difficulty level for singer and pianist is medium to medium-difficult, owing to sweeping vocal lines, dramatic climaxes, complicated rhythms in the accompaniment, and the necessity for well executed ensemble. The cycle appears in the Patterson Anthology in the low key. A high key version does exist, but it is harder (though not impossible) to locate.
Like Howard Swanson, Margaret Bonds had a close friendship with Langston Hughes. The poet's collection The Dream Keeper provided Bonds with the three poems of this cycle. They reflect on different themes related to being Black in America. "The work is a series of mood paintings with many characteristics of the jazz style." (Green 1983, 55) "Minstrel Man," the first song of the set, emotes poignant irony. The poetry speaks of the conflict between a Black entertainer's gay outer facade and his inner turmoil. Bonds's music reflects this conflict best by deft usage of modal mixture. The song climaxes dramatically. "Minstrel Man" can be easily excerpted from the cycle and performed separately. The second song is "Dream Variation." In this song, Bonds crafts an atmospheric, dreamlike vision of hopefulness. The piano and voice move together, though not homophonically, "whirling" and "dancing" as they bring to life Hughes' vision of a better world where the color black is applied to all things beautiful. Song three, "I, Too" is fashioned as a military march. The poetry speaks of ultimate triumph in the face of adversity. Tension builds from the first measures, the voice proclaiming, "I, too, sing America. I am the darker brother!" The mounting dissonance is effortlessly resolved with the statement, "Besides, they'll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed." Both the pianist and the singer must recognize the nuance of motivic material presented by Bonds in this song if it is to have the impact intended for ending this moving work (e.g., the martial quality of the opening bars in the piano, the disjunct melodic material of the phrase, "...nobody'll dare say to me, 'Eat in the kitchen,' then," the menacing quality of the piano part as the voice states, "Tomorrow, I'll sit at the table when company comes," and the laughing staccati of the piano in the postlude).
MARGARET BONDS: THREE DREAM PORTRAITS
Margaret Bonds represents a second generation of Black women composers. She first studied under her mother, Estella C. Bonds, an accomplished musician, continuing her musical studies of composition and piano with Florence B. Price, and composition under William Dawson. She completed the BM and MM from Northwestern Unviersity by the age of twenty-one. She studied under Tobert Storer at the Julliad School, piano with Henry Levene and private study with Roy Harris and Emerson harper. Conds was successful as a composer, concert pianist, private piano instructor, and church musician. One of her pupils was a young Ned Rorem. She received numerous fellowships and awards including the National Association of Negro Musicians Scholarship, Rodman Wanamaker Prize in composition (1939), Roy Harris Fellwoship, and the Northwestern University Alumni Medal in 1967. She was married in 1940 to Lawrence Richardson and had a daughter, DJane, who handles her estate to this day. She died in California where she worked in films. Her compositions include: Ballad of the Brown King, Three Dream Portraits, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," and the famous spiritual arrangement sung by many famous artists, though, oddly enough, she is rarely acknowledged as its composer, "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands."
Source: Perkins Holly, Ellistine. Biographies of Black Composers and Songwriters; A Supplementary Textbook. Iowa:Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1990.