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New Classical Tracks: Hear a retelling of the Nativity story in Margaret Bonds' 'The Ballad of the Brown King'

Pianist and composer Margaret Bonds Carl Van Vechten/Library of Congress
4min 59sec : New Classical Tracks: Margaret Bonds
28min 16sec : New Classical Tracks: Margaret Bonds (extended)

Margaret Bonds/The Dessoff Choirs/Malcolm J. Merriweather — The Ballad of the Brown King and Selected Songs (Avie)

"The Dessoff Choirs has been around for 95 years and has been recognized as one of the most outstanding amateur choirs in the country. I'm delighted to be at the helm of such a wonderful group."

Dr. Malcolm Merriweather is the ninth music director of the Dessoff Choirs. They recently collaborated with Dr. Ashley Jackson on a project featuring The Ballad of the Brown King. American composer Margaret Bonds composed this work, which is being recorded here for the first time.

Ashley, you're the featured harpist on this new release, and your relationship to the repertoire is very special. Can you tell us a little bit more about how The Ballad of the Brown King became the subject of your dissertation?

"I remember my first semester research class. There was a book that was being passed around, and it was music by black female composers. I kept that in back of my mind, and when I was thinking about what to write my dissertation on, I started doing some research and I came across Margaret Bonds, her life and her story. I felt a kind of kindred connection.

"I came across The Ballad of the Brown King. This piece seemed to mean a lot to Margaret Bonds, but yet there weren't any dissertations about the piece. For me, it felt like there was an opportunity to do service to a piece that meant a lot to the composer. And that's how I came across The Ballad of the Brown King."

Let's talk about the music. I'd love for each of you to just go through the different movements. What are we hearing?

Ashley: "What we're hearing is a retelling of the nativity story of the birth of Jesus. The Christmas story. But we're looking at it through the journey of one of those three wise men. And she's focusing on the dark-skinned king, Balthazar."

Malcolm: "One aspect of this piece that really captures me is the way Bonds sets the portrayal of this Ethiopian king through a lens of excellence. And that's partly attributed to, obviously, Langston Hughes, who wrote the libretto. I think it's a really important element to note that black people were not always slaves. We are descendants of kings and queens from great kingdoms, from great political and economic systems.

"The most evocative line in the piece for me is in the 6th movement, when the tenor says, 'Of all the kings who came to call, one was dark like me.' The choir repeats that, and every time I conduct that phrase and I hear that phrase sung by the soloist, I get chills."

Ashley: "The first version of this piece was premiered in 1954. And then, sometime after that, Bonds asked Langston Hughes to provide text for two additional movements. Also, during that period, she decided to score it for a full orchestra. That version was premiered in 1960. It's also at that time that she decided to dedicate the work to Martin Luther King Jr."

Malcom: "I also think that in the piece, the word 'king' comes up over and over again. She's really talking about Balthazar, but she's alluding and perhaps foreshadowing to the great prominence and reign of Martin Luther King Jr."

To hear the rest of my conversation, click on the extended interview above, or download the extended podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.


Margaret Bonds — The Ballad of the Brown King and Selected Songs (Amazon)

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