Title - 'The Ballad of the Brown King & Selected Songs'
Artist - Margaret Bonds
For those not in the know, Margaret Bonds was an American composer and pianist. One of the first black composers and performers to gain recognition in the United States, she is best remembered today for her frequent collaborations with Langston Hughes.
A native of Chicago, Bonds grew up in a home visited by many of the leading black intellectuals of the era; among houseguests were soprano Abbie Mitchell and composers Florence Price and Will Marion Cook.
Bonds showed an early aptitude for composition, writing her first work, Marquette Street Blues, at the age of five. Her parents were Monroe Alpheus Majors and his second wife, Estelle C. Bonds and Margaret took the last name, Bonds, after her parents divorced in 1917.
Her first study in music came when she took piano lessons from her mother. While still in school, she studied composition with Price and with William Dawson.
Bonds worked as an accompanist for dances and singers in various shows and supper clubs around Chicago; she also copied music parts for other composers, and became involved with the National Association of Negro Musicians.
And so, yes, emphatically yes, 20th-century African-American composer Margaret Bonds receives long overdue recognition with the world-premiere recording of her crowning achievement, The Ballad of the Brown King.
With an expressly written libretto by Bonds’ friend Langston Hughes, this Christmas cantata which focuses on Balthazar, the dark-skinned king who journeyed to Bethlehem to witness the birth of Jesus Christ, is beautifully interpreted by New York City-based The Dessoff Choirs and Orchestra.
It also features outstanding soloists soprano Laquita Mitchell, mezzo-soprano Lucia Bradford and tenor Noah Stewart, under the baton of their charismatic conductor, Malcolm J. Merriweather.
Furthermore, Bonds authority Dr. Ashley Jackson contributes the inspired liner notes.
This unique seasonal album also includes a selection of specially arranged songs, including a setting of Hughes’ seminal poem I, Too, Sing America, performed by baritone Merriweather and Jackson on solo harp.
Margaret Bonds (1913 – 1972)
The Ballad of the Brown King (1954) (23.34)
Libretto by Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967)
Laquita Mitchell soprano (4, 6, 9)
Lucia Bradford mezzo-soprano (9)
Noah Stewart tenor (1, 4, 6)
1. Of the Three Wise Men (3.31)
2. They Brought Fine Gifts (2.33)
3. Sing Alleluia (0.46)
4. Mary Had a Little Baby (2.45)
5. Now When Jesus Was Born (2.09)
6. Could He Have Been an Ethiope? (4.53)
7. Oh, Sing of the King Who Was Tall and Brown (4.12)
8. That Was a Christmas Long Ago (1.24)
9. Alleluia (2.41)
The Dessoff Choirs & Orchestra
Malcolm J. Merriweather conductor
10. To a Brown Girl Dead (1956) (2.06)
Text by Countee Cullen (1903 – 1946)
11. Winter Moon (1936) (1.15)
Text by Langston Hughes
Three Dream Portraits (1959) (7.00)
Texts by Langston Hughes
12. Minstrel Man (2.20)
13. Dream Variation (2.38)
14. I, Too (2.02)
Malcolm J. Merriweather baritone
Ashley Jackson harp
Listening along as I type, I can tell you that The Ballad of the Brown King is a cantata composed entirely by Margaret Bonds. Indeed, it may well be her most frequently performed work and was written in honor of the African king, Balthazar (with, as aforementioned, text written by Langston Hughes).
The Ballad premiered in December 1954 in New York and was performed by the George McClain Choir. This was a shorter version of the piece, which was subsequently expanded by both Hughes and Bonds to include full orchestration.
The longer version was performed on December 11th, 1960 and televised in a CBS special called "Christmas U.S.A." The 1960 performance was sung by the Westminster Choir and if you ever get to see and/or hear it, you will be amazed at just how deep it runs through your soul.
The cantata is made up of nine movements with parts for soprano, tenor, baritone and choir with the composition including a combination of European, Jazz and Calypso music.
Other musical influences include four-part hymn and gospel music although there are definitely also "quasi-recitative sections" and blues influenced parts of the cantata too.
This magnificent ballad focuses on one of the Three Kings from the story of the birth of Jesus with and additionally, Malcolm J. Merriweather, Dessoff’s Music Director and baritone soloist along with Ashley Jackson on harp, recorded five songs by Margaret Bonds – 'To a Brown Girl Dead' (text by Countee Cullen), 'Winter Moon', 'Minstrel Man', 'Dream Variation', and 'I, Too' (with texts by Langston Hughes).
Tracks 1 – 9 were recorded November 30th and December 1st, 2018 at James Memorial Chapel, Union Theological Seminary, New York City; and Tracks 10 – 14 were recorded at Skinner Hall, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY, on February 16th, 2019.
Recording producer, engineering, editing, and mastering was by Marlan Barry.
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