MARGARET BONDS’S “TROUBLED WATER” IN HER ARRANGEMENT FOR CELLO AND PIANO

Troubled Water is arguably Margaret Bonds’s best-known instrumental composition. Published by itself by Sam Fox Publishing (New York) in 1967, it had earlier been the third movement of Bonds’s Spirituals Suite — a set of three big and symphonically conceived piano pieces based on African American spirituals, first published as a set in 2020 by Dr. Louis Toppin. Originally, though, it was a composition for piano solo with audience participation. In that guise, which Bonds performed frequently on her tours in the 1950s, it was titled Group Dance based on the Negro Spiritual “Wade in the Water”; midway through the composition, just before the reprise, the audience was to sing the familiar spiritual “Wade in the Water,” and underneath their singing the piano was to re-enter, once again playing the familiar ostinato from the opening.

Here’s the 1967 version of Troubled Water in a my own favorite performance, rendered by Bonds champion Lara Downes:

Now much has been written and said about Troubled Water in that 1967 guise, and there’s much, much more to say about it in both that version and its original incarnation as a “Group Dance” — but this post is about another manifestation of Bonds’s deep personal identification with the piece: an arrangement that she prepared of it for solo cello with piano. Still unpublished, this arrangement bears all the power and beauty of the original composition for solo piano, but also takes advantage of the expressive effects offered by the cello. It survives in a very clean draft that is obviously based on the piano score, plus (at least) two fair-copy autographs.

I edited Bond’s cello arrangement of Troubled Water back in 2018 and shared it at that point with my friend and esteemed colleague Hai Zheng Olefsky, a superb cellist and teacher who is always interested in programming new pieces as well as canonical ones. She quickly expressed enthusiasm and plans for a performance were made — but these, like so much else, fell prey to the dreadful pandemic that continues to sicken and kill on a global scale. Finally, though, this past Sunday, in a recital that took place under careful physical-distancing restrictions, she and Prof. Kiyoshi Tamagawa performed the piece — and it was a very beautiful rendition indeed.

That performance, embedded in the video of the entire recital (which was wonderfully programmed and executed from beginning to end), is below. As you listen to it, check out not only the ways in which Bonds adapts her piano-solo vision for the piece into a new vision for two collaborative voices, but also the deliciously idiomatic writing for the cello and the new shape that becomes possible in the new scoring. I, for one, will never be able to un-hear the added jazzy cello lines, the strummed pizzicatos on the downbeats, and the furious arpeggios in the final bars — but I imagine that you’ll have your own favorite moments.

So go ahead: treat yourself to this beautiful performance of Margaret Bonds’s cello arrangement of Troubled Water (22'44" in this video). You’ll be glad you did:

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A musicologist with a passion for social justice, bringing unheard music to life for performers and listeners, and teaching.

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John Michael Cooper

John Michael Cooper

A musicologist with a passion for social justice, bringing unheard music to life for performers and listeners, and teaching.

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