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Selections from Montgomery Variations

Dr. King’s peaceful but powerful advocacy for racial justice inspired Bonds to write The Montgomery Variations, a series of meditations on the spiritual “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me.”

N.B. This program note pertains to the first three movements of The Montgomery Variations.

Margaret Allison Bonds was born on March 3, 1913, in Chicago, IL, and died April 26, 1972, in Los Angeles, CA. She wrote The Montgomery Variations in 1963, completing the piece after September 15 (see below), and finishing the orchestration the following year. According to the editor of the published score, John Michael Cooper, the work was evidently premiered in 1967 by her friend and champion, the choral conductor Albert McNeil. In the absence of that information, a performance by the UConn (University of Connecticut) Symphony Orchestra on December 6, 2018, was declared the work’s premiere. These performances of the first three movements of the Variations are the first by the Boston Symphony Orchestra of any music by Bonds, though a few of her songs have been performed in Boston Pops and Tanglewood concerts. Bonds’s manuscript narrowly avoided destruction following her daughter’s death in 2011 and is now in the collection of the Georgetown University Libraries. The score was finally published in 2020 by Hildegard Press.

The score of The Montgomery Variations calls for 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo and alto flute), 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (3 players: triangle, cymbals, wood block, tambourine, large drum), harp, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses).

In 1963 pianist/composer Margaret Bonds set out on a tour with vocalist Eugene Brice and the Manhattan Melodaires to Montgomery, Alabama, and the surrounding area. Although Bonds had toured the South many times, on this occasion she went deep into the interiority of a wave of activism that marked the identity of the mid-century Black civil rights movement. In the early 1960s the Movement shifted in strategy from lawsuits and economic boycotts to nonviolent, direct-action resistance initiated by young activists operating under the banner of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Margaret Bonds was no stranger to this type of activism, as it permeated the life and work of her parents and underscored much of her work as a composer, pianist, and educator.

Margaret Allison Bonds was born on March 3, 1913, in Chicago to Dr. Monroe Majors and Estella C. Bonds. Majors was a noted physician, writer, and activist whose activities drew the attention of the Ku Klux Klan on many occasions; while Bonds was a highly respected teacher and musician whose home at 6652 Wabash Avenue became one of the intellectual centers for Chicago’s Black Renaissance movement during the 1920s and 1930s. The intellectual salon that Estella Bonds hosted in her home drew poets, writers, musicians including Lillian Evanti and Abbie Mitchell and the Black composers William Grant Still, William Dawson, Will Marion Cook, and Florence Price. At age 20 in 1933, Margaret Bonds was soloist in the first performance of Price’s Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Such encounters as these left a lasting imprint on her and contributed to her strong musical and social consciousness.

Unlike many of her contemporaries who, in the years following World War II, searched for ways to advance the Black concert idiom through the modernist compositional approaches of serialism and atonality, Bonds continued to advance a compositional identity that was neo-Romantic in nature but bore markers of gospel, blues, and jazz. Her compositions reflected the influence of the liberation ideologies that permeated the intellectual circles she traversed in New York and Los Angeles. These circles included, but were not limited to, the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, singers Eartha Kitt and Nina Simone, actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, and writers James Baldwin and the composer’s longtime friend and collaborator Langston Hughes. Bonds and Hughes worked together on many occasions, producing works that challenged systemic and cultural racism by projecting new understandings of Black life and Black identity. Most notable are their cantatas The Ballad of the Brown King and Simon Bore the Cross, which punctuated the presence of African people during two critical moments in Biblical history—Christ’s birth and death respectively. In 1960 Hughes and Bonds revised The Ballad of the Brown King, dedicating the new version to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. These works, along with The Montgomery Variations and Credo, are emblematic of how a number of Bonds’s compositions from this period aligned with other repertories of protest music that were inspired by or used in advancing the ideological scope of the Black civil rights movement.

Dedicated to Dr. King, The Montgomery Variations is one of the few orchestral works found in Bonds’s vast oeuvre. She began working on it in 1963 and completed the orchestration the following year. It is important to note that while titled The Montgomery Variations, the programmatic theme of this work extends beyond that city and the Montgomery movement. Rather, it is a sonic documentation of the sites, sentiment, sounds, and activity that defined the first two chapters of the mid-century Black civil rights struggle. The thematic narrative of the work follows the chronology of 1955 to 1963, which correlates with the initiation of the Montgomery bus boycott, the rise of Dr. King, and the initiation of non-violent direct-action campaigns throughout the South. Bonds ends the narrative framework with one of the seminal events of the Movement—the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 15, 1963, which killed four little girls, and its aftermath of grief. Coming only two weeks following Dr. King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the bombing signified the start of a period of overt violence that pervaded the movement during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Margaret Bonds described the work as a “group of freestyle variations based on the Negro spiritual theme ‘I Want Jesus to Walk with Me.’” The spiritual is emblematic of how these melodies, along with gospel hymns and R&B songs, became the basis of a repertory of protest songs employed by activists during the direct-action campaigns of the early 1960s. Her compositional approach was similar to “the manner in which Bach constructed his partitas—a bold statement of the theme, followed by variations of the theme in the same key—major and minor.” Bonds guides the listener through each of the seven movements or variations by offering descriptive narratives.

The first movement, “Decision,” captures the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott following the arrest of Rosa Parks in 1955. It opens with two short timpani rolls that anticipate the statement of the spiritual melody by the brasses. Once complete, the strings enter with a varied form of the melody, which is picked up by the woodwinds. The brasses return offering musical responses that along with the strings build the emotional tension that resolves with the return of the melody.

“Prayer Meeting” takes the listener into the Black Church, one of the important cultural sites that has been at the center of the long struggle for racial and social equality. The prayer meeting was the predecessor of the mass meetings that served as the central means of mobilizing communities. In the program that accompanies the original manuscript Bonds describes this variation as follows:

Trut [sic] to custom prayer meetings precedes their action. Prayer meetings start quietly with humble petitions to God. During the course of the meeting, members seized with religious fervor shout and dance. Oblivious to their fellow worshippers they exhibit their love of God and their faith in deliverance by gesticulation, clapping, and beating their feet.

This variation begins with the strings playing a low tremolo accompanied by the tambourine. The sound invokes the type of humming or murmuring that often preceded the prayer in many primitive Baptist and Holiness churches. Humming set an ethos that was about ushering those gathered into a space of reverence and it facilitated communal dialogue with God. The oboe enters with a plaintive melody that is soon joined by the flutes. Bassoons and clarinets respond, signifying the communal nature of Black musical and sermonic practices. This activity is broken up with the entrance of a varied form of the spiritual melody played by the strings. The motive is then taken up by the horns. Their entrance marks the beginning of a shift in the energy and spirit of the gathering. As the Holy Spirit falls within the midst of the congregants, the polyphony of voices crying out to God is underscored by the polyrhythmic movement of feet, bodies, and the clapping of hands. This is represented in a series of syncopated and punctuated rhythmic patterns introduced first by strings, timpani, and tambourine and later adopted by the woodwinds and brasses. The spiritual melody rings out boldly over this musical dialogue. The heightened wave of ecstatic worship reflected in this section soon gives way to quiet reverence as the opening melody played by the oboe and flutes returns.

In the wake of Rosa Parks’s arrest, the Women’s Political Council initiated a call for the Black citizens of Montgomery, Alabama, to boycott the bus system. Word of the boycott spread and on December 5, the date of Parks’s trial, 40,000 Blacks avoided the buses. In the days that followed, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was formed with a young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., serving as its president. When city officials refused to consider the demands of the MIA, the group initiated one of the first large-scale demonstrations against segregation. For 381 days, the Black citizens of Montgomery boycotted the buses by forming carpools or walking to their destinations. The boycott ended in December 1956 when a federal court ruled the law that supported segregated seating was unconstitutional. Although the campaign against the bus system ended, the collective fire that sustained it for over a year did not diminish. It became the impetus for a larger movement directed at challenging other forms of systemic racism that pervaded the South.

Margaret Bonds captures the spirit of defiance and perseverance that sustained the Montgomery Bus boycott in the third movement, “The March.” This variation begins with the timpani and basses marking the marching of feet. The bassoons enter with the melody, which is subsequently taken up by the cellos. The spiritual melody is then passed to the violins, then English horn. This is followed by a sequence of countermelodies that push both the rhythmic and emotional energy of this movement to a heightened level. Just as you think the emotional peak has been reached, the melody played by horns and trombones breaks forth reflecting the resilience of the unified community. As the timpani mark out the steps of the marchers, the bassoons enter with a portion of the melody that anticipates the final chord.

Tammy Kernodle

Dr. Tammy L. Kernodle is University Distinguished Professor in Miami University of Ohio’s Department of Music, specializing in African American music (concert and popular) and gender studies in music. She is the author of Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams (University of Illinois Press).