First Recording of Work by African American Composer

Dec 16, 2019

She was an African-American woman trying to make it in a white man’s world – and she succeeded, performing with world-class orchestras and winning three highly coveted ASCAP Awards, among other accolades.

Recently, Margaret Bonds’ music received another honor with the release of the world-premiere recording of The Ballad of the Brown King (Avie Records).  Bonds considered it her magnum opus... a Christmas cantata set to a text by noted Harlem Renaissance poet, and Bonds’ longtime friend, Langston Hughes.  The work will be featured this Christmas season on The American Sound.

Malcolm J. Merriweather leads the New York City-based Dessoff Choirs and Orchestra in a performance featuring soprano Laquita Mitchell, mezzo-soprano Lucia Bradford and tenor Noah Stewart as soloists.

The opening movement of Margaret Bonds' Christmas cantata, The Ballad of the Brown King, in the the world-premiere recording by the Dessoff Choirs and Orchestra, Malcolm J. Merriweather conducting:

Bonds’ musical education began in her family home on the south side of Chicago, where she grew up playing the piano at home and at the Baptist church she attended with her mother.

During her student years at Northwestern University, Bonds’ eyes were opened to race discrimination. But a voice of affirmation also came during those years when Bonds first read Langston Hughes’ poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” a deft and substantive meditation on the richness of African and African American history which Bonds would later say helped “save” her.

Bonds met Hughes in 1936 in Chicago, establishing the basis for what would become a decades-long friendship between composer and poet.

When Bonds moved to Harlem in 1939 with Hughes’ encouragement, she continued a varied professional career of composing, teaching, performing and organizing concerts and cultural events. Bonds and Hughes also continued their friendship via written correspondence, which included a steady stream of poems from Hughes for Bonds to set to music.

Between 1954 and 1960, with the Civil Rights movement gathering steam, Hughes wrote the libretto for a Christmas cantata centering on the biblical king Balthazar, who was one of the three magi to bring gifts to the infant Jesus, and whose “black complexion” is mentioned in an eighth-century nativity narrative.

The Ballad of the Brown King was dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr. and was first performed in 1954. The work was later expanded for a 1960 performance sung by the Westminster Choir and televised on CBS.  This is the first time a commercial recording has been released.

Enjoy Margaret Bonds’ Christmas cantata, The Ballad of the Brown King, on The American Sound, 6 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 21 and 8 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 24 on Classical 101.