Composers Florence Beatrice Price (1887 – 1953) and Margaret Bonds (1913 – 1972) have works included in our upcoming concert, Piano Songs & Fantasies, which premieres online this February 21, 2021 at 7:00 PM, Pacific Time. They were both African-American women who lived in Chicago.
Price graduated high school in Little Rock, Arkansas as valedictorian of her class at age 14. She enrolled at the New England Conservatory of Music, where her mother listed her race as Mexican, likely as a means of protection for her daughter. She graduated in 1906, the only student to pursue a double major (organ and piano performance). After teaching music in the South for decades, she eventually moved with her husband and two daughters to Chicago in 1927, in part to escape the segregation and rising racial tensions in Arkansas.
After the move, she began to see success as her songs, piano music, and piano instruction were published. She divorced her husband in 1928 and ended up moving in with the family of her student, Margaret Bonds. Margaret’s mother Estella, was also a single mother and a trained musician who taught piano and served as church choral director and organist.
Both Price and Bonds received recognition from the 1932 Rodman Wanamaker Foundation Awards. Price won first prize for her Symphony in E Minor, while Bonds took first place in the song category. Frederick Stock, then music director for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO), arranged for Price’s symphony to be played at a concert on June 15, 1933, making Price the first black woman to have her work performed by a major orchestra. At the same program, he also invited Bonds to to perform a separate work by John Alden Carpenter, making Bonds the first African-American woman to perform as a soloist alongside the CSO.
This unprecedented level of recognition was not to last as Florence Price struggled to find ensembles willing to include her music in their programs. In 1943, she sent a blunt letter to Serge Koussevitzky, then music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, asking him to consider her works: “To begin with I have two handicaps — those of sex and race. I am a woman, and I have some Negro blood in my veins. Knowing the worst, then, would you be good enough to hold in check the possible inclination to regard a woman’s composition as long on emotionalism but short on virility and thought content, until you shall have examined some of my work?” Koussevitzky is reported to have corresponded with Price, but never publicly offered her his support.
Margaret Bonds was admitted to Northwestern University in 1929, where she was allowed to study, but not to live or use their facilities. This overtly racist atmosphere was new to her: “I was in this prejudiced university, this terribly prejudiced place–I was looking in the basement of the Evanston Public Library where they had the poetry. I came in contact with this wonderful poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” and I’m sure it helped my feelings of security. Because in that poem [Langston Hughes] tells how great the black man is: And if I had any misgivings, which I would have to have–here you are in a setup where the restaurants won’t serve you and you’re going to college, you’re sacrificing, trying to get through school–and I know that poem helped save me.”
Bonds eventually met Langston Hughes in 1936 and began setting his poetry to music. Hughes moved to New York shortly after, and encouraged her to do the same. Moving to New York in 1939, Bonds found work as an editor and began playing piano at the Apollo Theater, which renewed her interest in writing popular songs. She married a parole officer, Lawrence Richardson, who she met through Hughes’ social circle. Bonds maintained a friendship and collaborated professionally with Hughes until his death in 1967.