Music by African American composers has received renewed attention in the 21st century, but that of Margaret Bonds remains neglected. This is so even though her career stretched from the "Harlem Renaissance" to the years of the civil rights movements, and even though, in her day, she was probably more prominent than her contemporaries. She wrote arrangements of spirituals that were (and remain) widely sung, and the present Christmas cantata, The Ballad of the Brown King, was performed in 1960 by the Westminster Choir and broadcast on CBS television. This is the cantata's world premiere recording, and it counts as a major event. Capsule descriptions of the work emphasize its African American elements -- jazz, blues, calypso, and more -- but listen here, and you'll find that what's distinctive about the music is that those elements, at least until the rousing final Alleluia, are muted. They're there, but they're elegantly integrated into neo-Romantic choral polyphony. In this, Bonds creates a perfect match for the poetry of Langston Hughes, unmistakably African American in theme, but less marked by linguistic vernaculars than that of his contemporaries. The text deals with Balthazar, the "brown king" who was one of the Three Wise Men, and asks about Jesus, "Could he have been an Ethiope?" The mood is joyous, and conductor Malcolm J. Merriweather forges lovely limpid textures from the Dessoff Choirs. Merriweather also appears as a soloist in a group of songs by Bonds, again with texts by Hughes, whom she knew well. These are more influenced by African American idioms and are also worth getting to know. However, The Ballad of the Brown King is a work ideally suited to the present day. It's within reach for any choir. It's transparent, yet deeply felt, and it marks an important addition, thanks to Merriweather and company, to the American choral repertory.
AllMusic Review by James Manheim
|The Ballad of the Brown King|
|Three Dream Portraits|