April 28 | Margaret Bonds’s Spiritual Suite, performed by Fernando Garcia
Trouble viewing the video? Click here to watch it on IU Media Collections Online.
About the composer and piece
Margaret Bonds (1913-1972) was a composer, pianist, teacher, and activist whose career spanned from the Harlem Renaissance through the civil rights movement. At the age of just twenty-one, she became the first Black instrumentalist to solo with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. This was the same concert the CSO debuted the first symphony of Bonds’s mentor and teacher Florence Price. (Check out Kaden Larson’s performance of three pieces by Price earlier in this series!) Bonds’s later career was defined by frequent collaborations with her close friend, the poet Langston Hughes, who wrote the libretti for some of Bonds’s most substantial choral compositions such as the Christmas cantata Ballade of the Brown King. Bonds was also a prolific vocal composer and accompanist who collaborated with the leading singers of her day. Check out her triumphant arrangement of the spiritual He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands was popularized by legendary Leontyne Price whose friendship with Bonds is documented in numerous letters. (The primary sources hyperlinked in this paragraph all come from a digitized Margaret Bonds exhibit curated by Georgetown University Library Special Collections.)
The Spiritual Suite is Bonds’s magnum opus for her primary instrument, written for herself to play as a closer on solo recitals as an empowering musical means of expressing racial pride. Bonds first expressed a desire to write solo piano settings of spirituals as a young child, inspired by the encores of concert spirituals she heard sung by the legendary Black vocalists Marian Anderson, Abbie Mitchell, and Roland Hayes. She drafted her piano settings throughout the 1930s and 1940s and gave her first documented public performance of its final two movements at her 1952 New York Town Hall debut recital. The suite’s finale, “Troubled Water,” was the only movement published during her lifetime. Thanks to its publication, “Troubled Water” has become one of Bonds’s most frequently studied, performed, and recorded works. However, the suite’s first two movements were not published until December 2020, nearly fifty years after Bonds’s death. The complete suite is now available in an edition by Dr. Louise Toppin.
Each movement of the Spiritual Suite is based on a traditional Negro spiritual and combines, to varying degrees, the traditionally Black musical idioms of blues, jazz, and gospel with the classical styles of Romanticism and Impressionism.
The first movement — “The Valley of the Bones” — is based on the spiritual “Dry Bones,” which tells the story of Ezekiel Chapter 37. In this story, God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to a valley of dry, dead bones. The bones come to life, and God tells Ezekiel they are Israelites whom God will protect and lead to the promised land. Spiritual references to Old Testament Israelites have long symbolized the oppressed plight of African Americans. In this way, the story has represented the rejuvenation and healing of a spirit downcast by the personal and cultural traumas of living as a Black person in the United States. Bonds’s setting captures this empowering transformation by opening in a somber, desolate mood yet flipping on a dime to a rowdy, boogie-woogie atmosphere, expressing joy at the dry bones’ revival.
The second movement — “The Bells” — is based on the spiritual “Peter, Go Ring Dem Bells.” In the text to this spiritual, the narrator repeats the question, “I wonder where my mother/sister/brother is gone?” followed by the answer, “I heard from Heaven today!” Mourning the absence of family members carried multiple meanings for the enslaved individuals who would have originally sung this music: forced family separations, fugitives fleeing to the North, emancipated individuals repatriating to Africa, or early deaths imposed by the brutality of chattel slavery. In these contexts, “hearing from heaven” could be a healing salve, an expression of faith, or at times an active motivator to rebellion. Bonds’s setting captures this depth of expression with impressionistic music that evokes bells in all registers of the piano, recalling earlier settings of the spiritual by her mentors Florence Price and H. T. Burleigh as well as piano music of Claude Debussy. The harmonies become jazzier as she approaches the climax, and after a forceful reprise of the originally peaceful opening, Bonds closes on extremely low chords marked fortississimo — as loud as the pianist can manage. In a live concert, this empowering gesture of physical and sonic strength reverberates through the body in a way that no recording can ever capture.
The finale — “Troubled Water” — is based on the spiritual “Wade in the Water.” Howard Thurman, a mystic and spiritual advisor to Martin Luther King Jr., wrote on the meaning of the spiritual: “Within the context of the ‘troubled’ waters of life there are healing waters, because God is in the midst of the turmoil…. [T]here is at the heart of life a Heart. When such an insight is possessed by the human spirit and possesses the human spirit, a vast and awe-inspiring tranquility irradiates the life. This is the message of the spiritual. Do not shrink from moving confidently out into choppy seas. Wade in the water, because God is troubling the water.” Bonds’s powerful, virtuosic setting employs a scheme of variations that become increasingly energetic and unstable. A cathartic, tension releasing climax culminates in a huge glissando that gives you a sense of the power and charisma Bonds’s own playing must have commanded.
About this week’s performer
Fernando Garcia is a Junior working to earn his Bachelor’s degree from the Jacobs School of Music. He previously won numerous competitions in his hometown of San Diego and has worked with wind ensembles and choirs. Fernando has studied with Dr. Victor Labenske from PLNU, and is currently studying with Professor Jean-Louis Haguenauer.