This work for choir and orchestra might become your new holiday favorite! Bonds' takes us on an evocative musical journey with more in the story than meets the eye.
John Banther: I'm John Banther, and this is Classical Breakdown. From WETA Classical in Washington, we take you behind the music. In this episode I'm joined by WETA Classical's Evan Keeley, to talk all about the Ballad of the Brown King by Margaret Bonds. There are several layers to this holiday work you need to know, inspiring text by Langston Hughes, several musical influences, and we discover how the sole commercial recording came to be.
Plus, stay with us to the end as we read your reviews from Apple Podcasts. It's that time of year, Evan, where holiday music is everywhere. It's kind of inescapable, and this is one work I think many have probably not heard before and hopefully is one that everyone can enjoy this and every holiday season going forward, and that's the Ballad of the Brown King, a cantata by African- American composer, Margaret Bonds, who lived from 1913 to 1972. And this one is quite a treasure.
Evan Keeley: Yes, she's quite a remarkable American composer, getting more and more attention, and I'm really thrilled because she's really a remarkable composer.
John Banther: And this is, I think, really the biggest work we have from her right now at this point. And it was one that was premiered in a shortened version in 1954, and then a longer completed one in 1960 was premiered on CBS in a TV broadcast called Christmas in the USA, and it was sung by the Westminster Choir. So, Evan, what is a cantata exactly? Would you bring us all up to speed?
Evan Keeley: Well, cantata is simply a catchall term from the Latin and Italian, cantare, to sing. So it means a piece that is sung, distinguished from a sonata, which is a piece that is played. So you hear these terms, and they often have very different meanings, and it can be quite confusing. We hear the word cantata in the tradition of Western European classical music. We often think most prominently of the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach. And what we have with those is a multimovement work for voices. You'll have solo voices. You'll have a choir, and you'll have various combinations of instruments, and typically they're shorter than something like an opera or an oratorio. So it's not unusual for a cantata of Bach, for instance, to be 20 or 25 or 30 minutes long or even less. And that framework is helpful to us in looking at this cantata by Margaret Bonds, which has some similarities to that tradition, but also has some unique characteristics as well.
John Banther: And being a multimovement work for voice and usually orchestra with a choir, it's a great form to tell a story, which is why it was well suited for religious services, but of course, they could be secular as well. This one, this Ballad of the Brown King, it's a beautiful work, but there is only one recording. And the reason we even have one at all, seems like, it's almost luck because conductor and baritone singer Dr. Malcolm Merriweather... He's the one who's made a sole commercial recording available of this at the moment. And he wrote about this in the American Music Review Journal.
He said, " In the program notes of a concert I attended, harpist Dr. Ashley Jackson made mention of the Ballad of the Brown King, the 1954 cantata composed by Bonds in collaboration with the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. While I was familiar with Bonds through her solo vocal works and spiritual arrangements, I had never encountered this cantata or any other extended work. In fact, in all of my education, I had never learned about a Black woman composing a choral orchestral piece. It turned out that the absence of the work from choral literature texts was not even the biggest obstacle to further study. The ballad had been out of print for decades, and I could not find a single professional- level recording. Eventually I found a PDF of the piano vocal score and sat down to play through the piece. I was immediately captivated by the setting and made plans to perform it and record it." It's amazing, Evan, that we have this, almost just by happenstance, of him seeing in program notes of a concert, just a mention of this piece.
Evan Keeley: Yes. We all owe a debt to Dr. Merriweather for reviving this piece. And as you said, there's this one recording. He's the conductor in this performance. It came out on the Avie record label in, I think, 2019. And in that performance... We can talk more about the specifics where he finally got his hands on an orchestral score and then wrote a arrangement for smaller instrumental forces, which made the work... It's more practical to perform with a smaller ensemble, but it's really a wonderful performance.
John Banther: And with this cantata, there are two stories being told. The one in the text, as it were, about the African king, Balthazar, and a bigger one being told by Bonds and Hughes. In a letter to Hughes, Bonds mentioned that focusing on the dark- skinned character as the main part of the Christmas story was intentional. She wrote, " It is a great mission to tell Negroes how great they are." In another letter about this work, she said, " That it gave the dark youth of America a cantata which makes them proud to sing," and other mentions of things like, " A true concept of brotherhood toward people of color throughout the world." And as we heard already, Langston Hughes wrote the text, and it is this two, or dual story in the music, I think, the one being told in the text, this part of a Christmas story, and then this bigger issue that Bonds and Hughes is trying to get off, especially in the 1950s going into 1960 of being proud of the race and giving a cantata that quote, " Black youth would be proud to sing."
Evan Keeley: Yes. It's important to mention that Margaret Bonds and Langston Hughes were good friends. They collaborated in a number of endeavors artistically. She set to music, usually for voice and piano, a number of his poems. And I'm glad to see that Langston Hughes is pretty well remembered today. We associate him as a really very significant figure in the Harlem Renaissance. My spouse actually went to a junior high school... Langston Hughes was the name of the school. So it's wonderful that people remember Langston Hughes. And I'm hoping that as we get into this discussion about Margaret Bonds, this'll be part of an ongoing effort that we're seeing in lots of places in the country, to also remember Margaret Bonds, who I think was also a very consequential figure in the Harlem Renaissance.
And the fact that these two geniuses were good friends and worked together to create a number of artworks, including this cantata we're talking about today, is something that's really worth remembering. And of course, as you mentioned, John, the context, the historical context, 1954, the year the cantata first came out, the Montgomery Bus Boycott starts the following year. Hughes and Bonds are both very aware of these developments, and they're actively engaged in how America is changing, and they're playing a role in changing America.
John Banther: And they were really just kind of a creative, perfect match. So before we jump into the music, this is about King Balthazar. Can you enlighten us a little bit? Bring us up to speed on who this is real quick.
Evan Keeley: Sure. So this is a cantata for the nativity, or more specifically for the epiphany, which is the story in the Gospels where the Christ child first encounters other people beyond the family. And this has been celebrated in Christian tradition throughout the centuries. If you look at the Gospel narrative, it's pretty vague about who these people are. It just says wise men from the East. But in the early medieval period, this tradition developed of them being kings and there being three of them. There are three gifts in the Gospel narrative, and perhaps that's why we have this idea of three kings. Again, it's unscriptural, but it's this longstanding tradition, and there's been a great deal of visual art and poetry and music. And we can even think in our own time, We Three Kings of Orient Are, as a familiar carol. And that's just one of many examples of these sort of artistic reimaginings of this ancient story and how it is description of an encounter between the human and the divine.
So what's particularly interesting and relevant to this cantata, the Ballad of the Brown King, is that it is a celebration of the presence of a Black person at the Epiphany. When humankind comes into contact with this divine force... And again, whatever your particular religious beliefs are, that's an element of the story that's being told. Bonds and Hughes are celebrating the ways in which a Black man was present at this encounter. And it's a wonderful celebration of that in terms of what it means spiritually and what it means for the contributions of Black people to world history. I think that Bonds and Hughes are both very conscious of that, and they've created something that's very intimate and very celebratory, but also, it invites some very deep reflection.
John Banther: And with that, let's get right into the music. The first movement of nine titled Of the Three Wise Men. I love her orchestration and the sound in this cantata, which, as we've said, it's not long. She has great expediency with how she uses lines. Brevity is something that's also used a lot because her overall rhythm here sets up Hughes' text perfectly. There's no meandering, things going on and on. There's brief introductions, brief endings, and it's all about uplifting this text and, I think, the message, and it does so quite beautifully and creatively as we'll hear. ( singing)
So if you know Langston Hughes' poetry, the texts will feel familiar. If you don't know his poetry, I'll highly recommend reading and looking that up after you hear this. So there are two stanzas in the first movement, and for instance, with Hughes, we hear a great repetition and variation, classic hallmarks of Hughes. So many of the stanzas in every movement all begin with the same line, a different one for each movement. But that same line is repeated, used as the first one of following stanzas, and he'll then take... Actually, he'll take fragments of it and make small changes with this repetition. So for instance, this first stanza, " Of the three wise men who came to the king, one was a brown man, so they sing alleluia, alleluia." And a second stanza, " Of the three wise men who followed the star, one was a brown king from afar. Alleluia, alleluia." So you see how he takes from three wise men and brown man to following the star and then the brown king as well. ( singing)
Evan Keeley: And this is one of the wonderful things about this cantata, is the ways in which it really is a fusion of different traditions coming together, so you have this Western European, what we would call classical tradition, whatever that word means. And of course, there's also this wonderful, rich tradition of African American spirituals, the blues, jazz, all of this coming together in this beautiful way. And as you said, John, there's a kind of simplicity to it on the surface. And yet, as we listen to this work and become more and more acquainted with it, we also see this profound sophistication.
John Banther: And great use of counter melodies already from this first movement within that context we just described, and it's with that that it never feels thin, and it never kind of lingers. I've played hundreds of holiday concerts, at this point, hundreds of arrangements of different things. And it's so easy for things to lose momentum, to lose their drive or the overall character by doing things that just aren't very expedient in the moment. And Bonds really navigates all this well.
Evan Keeley: It avoids the trivial clichés, as you said, John, that are so prominent in holiday music, some of which can be very fun and pleasant, but it's kind of like eating candy. It gives you pleasure in the moment, but it doesn't really nourish. And Margaret Bonds is a composer who's able to see beyond that which provides momentary pleasure and to provide something that's really rich and meaningful.
John Banther: You mentioned a little bit ago about, I think, the orchestration with this piece because it is a little bit different in this recording than the Bonds' original. Merriweather actually did an arrangement of her score, and he wrote, again, about this in the journal saying, " Reducing the full orchestration, I fashioned the winds and brass into an organ part and retained the string material. Saint- Saëns' exquisite Oratorio de Noel Opus 12 inspired the instrumentation. The harp part was enlivened to add texture that one might miss in the absence of winds and brass. I reconciled and corrected errors in the full orchestra manuscript parts and printed piano vocal score, and edited the vocal parts with breath marks, articulations, and other expressive features. All of these edits were informed and influenced by various aspects of Bonds' compositional idiom, including her use of expression in her solo vocal works, characterized by call and response textures, jazz harmonies, gospel vocalizations, calypso rhythms and syncopated gestures. Bonds affirms Black identity and its place in classical music."
Helen Walker- Hill describes this perfectly in this quote, " Her deliberate use of Black musical idioms in these works made a statement about the value of African Americans and their culture." End quote. So he's made some adjustments here, but I think it's really still faithful to the original, and it makes it more performable in a sense because it's a lot more expensive to hire winds and brass instead of just one organist.
Evan Keeley: Exactly. And Dr. Merriweather, in this article we're referencing, is reminding us that he's very familiar with other vocal works by Margaret Bonds. So he's using an informed approach to editing this particular unpublished score.
John Banther: Yes. Looking at the second movement, They Brought Fine Gifts. This one's interesting because it's a movement about gifts, about riches, and about beauty. ( singing) And Hughes uses really the simplest poetry of all the movements and really very simple poetry, in general, just two couplets for this entire movement. " They brought fine gifts of silver and gold in jeweled boxes of beauty untold. Unto his humble manger they came, and bowed their heads in Jesus' name." To me, I mean, it seems obvious today, this idea, because I think we all saw Indiana Jones. Which cup do you choose, the one decorated in jewels and gold or the simple one? And so I think they navigated that well here.
Evan Keeley: Yeah. One of the things I love about this piece, both in terms of Hughes' poetry and Bonds' music is there's a kind of childlike simplicity. There's almost a nursery rhyme quality on the surface to both the music and the poetry. And as you look more closely, as you listen more intently, you discover that, yes, there's that childlike, almost a naive quality, and yet it's speaking to something very powerful and almost revolutionary in a very mature way. (singing)
John Banther: I think that's why they're a great creative match. And the harmonies are very interesting in this one too.
Evan Keeley: Yes, you have these 9th chords and 11th chords. You associate those kinds of harmonic styles with jazz or with a composer like Debussy.
John Banther: And 9ths and 11ths, I mean, when you go to 8, that's an octave. And then the 9ths and 11ths, those are even higher scale degrees. They don't quite fit in with usually the chord that's underneath that gives it that sound you were just describing.
Evan Keeley: Right. You won't hear those kinds of harmonies in Mozart, but you do hear them in a jazz piece or in some of the more adventurous works of a composer like Debussy. And Margaret Bonds is a composer who's very well versed in all of those traditions. ( singing)
John Banther: The third movement, Sing Alleluia, this seems to me like more of an interlude. It's a great transition to the fourth movement. And again, for me, she has great overall rhythm, not just in a single movement, telling a story from beginning to end, but also larger across several movements because we've had two great movements. And we're going to have a fourth one, but we need a kind of palate cleanser in between.
Evan Keeley: Yeah. And there's a kind of childlike simplicity to this movement underlying which, of course, is a real sophistication, very, very short. The whole thing is about a minute long, and it's the only movement in the entire work without any instrumental accompaniment. Like you said, it's like this sort of palate cleanser. It's like an antiphonal response in kind of the call- and- response tradition. And it's a contrast, to me, between the very stylish and very elegant movements that come before and after it. There's a surprising quality to it that makes you want to pay even closer attention.
John Banther: The fourth movement, speaking of nursery rhymes, Mary Had a Little Baby, rhythmically in the text and the music, reminds me of Mary Had a Little Lamb. ( singing) And there's that very kind of gentle, quiet nature about this one.
Evan Keeley: It's the kind of thing we would expect in Christmas music and Christmas poetry, this childlike wonder.
John Banther: And this one has great examples of call and response and really, really effortless as well because constant call and response or using a device again and again can feel quite old, or it can become kind of stale. But that's just not really kind of what's happening here. Again, the brevity that she uses in the music, I think, is also helpful with that. Now, things change with the fifth movement, I think, a little bit this one titled Now When Jesus Was Born. (singing)
This one has a very storytelling opening to me, a kind of a, " Gather around now hear this," story with the text, " Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in the days of Herod the King," that beginning of a Christmas story you usually hear, a very, very gather around kind of sound, for me, in this one.
Evan Keeley: Yeah. In a lot of cultures around the world, you have sort of this character of the auntie or the uncle, the wise elder who's loving but also strong and stern. And you really feel, in this fifth movement in particular, this kind of, " Gather round and listen to this thing. It's very important." And there's this loving quality that the music and the poetry unfold us into the story.
John Banther: And musically, looking at this one, there's a great example of what, I think, Merriweather did really well in terms of adding his own influence on the work. And that is the use of the harp. He mentioned that he enlivened the harp part to make up for the lack of texture of winds and brass. And for this movement, towards the end, there is this... You can hear the harp picking out the arpeggio of a chord, perhaps, that the brass and the winds would be playing and sustaining, giving you that different color and texture. But he makes up for that with the harp, and I think he does it quite well. Yeah, you don't feel like something is missing, or the bottom drops out or something like that. ( singing)
Evan Keeley: This reminds me a little bit of Vaughn Williams' music. There's kind of the folky quality that you associate with that style and that tradition, or there's that kind of lilting quality that we have. You look at the Christmas cantata tradition of a composer like Bach, the Christmas Oratorio. You have the Pastorale. You have sort of this movement. It's very often in triple time evoking this pastoral scene, this scene with the angels and the shepherds. There's this simplicity on the surface and this great sophistication underneath as we pay closer attention.
John Banther: And we'll get into the next movement, Could He Have Been an Ethiope? right after this. Classical Breakdown, your guide to classical music, is made possible by WETA Classical. Join us for the music and insightful commentary anytime, day or night. You can stream the music online at wetaclassical. org or in the WETA Classical app. It's free in the app store. So now we get into the sixth movement of this cantata by Margaret Bonds, this movement called Could He Have Been An Ethiope? The introduction to this movement is reminiscent of the opening movement where the king is being introduced. And Merriweather referred to this, also in that journal, as a regal motif. I also think we hear it, a variation of it, in the intro to the fifth movement, When Jesus is Born. It's a different meter and everything, but I still hear the kind of influence or echo of this one, so it sounds like there's a lot of elevating here of all these different characters.
Evan Keeley: Yeah. And this is, I think, an important section when it comes to what we were discussing earlier, the mission of a work like this, this mission of Black uplift, this, as she said, " A cantata Black youth can sing proudly." And so far it's the typical story. The baby is born, the magi bringing gifts. This moment puts more concretely the lines in the first movement, " One was a brown king from afar." And this tries to answer, " Who was this brown king? Did he look like someone like me? Did he look like someone that I know?" And we're given these different possibilities, Ethiopian. Is he Egyptian? Is he Arabian? And the choir answers. " I did not know just who he was, but he was a wise, wise man. Of all the kings who came to call, one was dark like me, and I'm so glad that he was there, a little Christ to see." ( singing)
John Banther: This is the longest and most musically developed movement. And those last lines you've read there are so key, it seems. This gets repeated with a lot of intensity in the music that Bonds writes. Merriweather also wrote saying, " One cannot help but connect the journey of Balthazar to the plight of runaway slaves following the North Star to Philadelphia."
Evan Keeley: Yeah. And I think that there's a mutual seeing that's being lifted up here, maybe not as explicitly in the text or maybe in the music, this sense of this Black man, this dignified hero seeing the Christ child but also, therefore, being seen by the divine. And this encounter between the human and the divine that lifts up a Black presence is such a powerful theme throughout this work.
John Banther: Yes. And it continues with the seventh movement, Oh, Sing of the King Who Was Tall and Brown. It's nearly as long as the previous one. And this seems to focus more on the attributes and actions of the Brown King crossing the desert, bringing gifts, witnessing the child, moving, then, away from, well, where perhaps was he from? This movement has two stanzas in the poetry, and they're the longest in any of the movements. Each one is quite long, and the rhyming scheme is more complicated. But I'll just read the last one here, " Oh sing of the king who was tall and brown and the other kings that this king found, who came to put their presence down in a lowly manger in Bethlehem town, where the King of king's, a babe, was found. The King of kings, a babe was found. Three kings who came to the King of kings, and one was tall and brown." ( singing) The endless play on the word king and this Bethlehem town, and then at the end elevating, " One was tall and brown."
Evan Keeley: Yes. And again, this idea of a journey and a Black person making a journey to freedom, to liberation, to a greater sense of a fuller life, these are, of course, very powerful themes throughout the poetry of a poet like Langston Hughes and throughout Black culture in America through the centuries.
John Banther: So we get to the eighth movement now, This Was a Christmas Long Ago. And again, I just love composers who were able to tell a story and keep you there and present the entire time. I love her rhythm of this entire piece. (singing) So this movement, in that context, it's now bringing us back to present day. We've heard this story. Who was this brown man, this Brown King? Where was he going, his journey? And then, now, we're brought to present day, and she starts to wind down the work. So it feels like we're zooming out from long ago back to present day. And also in the text, dropping the word king and then using men or man. " One was a brown man, so they sing," taking text from the first movement.
Evan Keeley: Right. It's a reprise of the first movement's text, but with those significant but simple changes. ( singing)
John Banther: And that goes into the ninth movement, which is the last and, also, kind of taking from the first movement, this is Alleluia. I think it takes its idea from the first movement. It's celebratory. It's like a march. It's a perfect close to this entire thing.
Evan Keeley: Right. It has this wonderful musical drive with this descending chromatic scale that keeps repeating, almost like an ostinato or a passalcaglia, and you have this rhythmic drive with this Scottish snap on the downbeats, the... on the downbeats. That's maybe a little bit more of an unusual rhythm that really kind of brings us home in this really powerful way. ( singing)
John Banther: This is just, I think, a wonderful work that we should be enjoying this holiday season, the next holiday season, eating Christmas dinner or your holiday dinner or at a party, something like that. I hope everyone listens to this many times because, again, I've played hundreds of Christmas concerts or holiday- themed programs, and this one checks all of the boxes in terms of being something enjoyable to listen to, probably a lot of fun to play, great story, great rhythm overall in the entire thing. And just, it kind of grabs you and holds on from beginning to end.
Evan Keeley: Margaret Bonds is a great composer. There's a number of works of hers that are getting more and more attention. The Montgomery Variations is another one that we're hearing more orchestras play, really powerful instrumental work. She arranged many spirituals, and more and more singers and pianists are reviving those works. There's something very American about this cantata and about her music. As you said, it's a wonderful way to celebrate the holiday, whatever your beliefs are, or whatever your practices are, this wonderful festive spirit that's infused into the music. And only an American could have written this music. Only a Black woman, I think, could have written this music. And despite those particularities, and maybe on some level because of them, there's this wonderful, universal appeal and power and something so inviting and beguiling about this piece that I hope people will really invite into their lives.
John Banther: And we'll have more information and more performances of her music on the Show Notes page at classicalbreakdown.org. Okay, so now it's time to read your reviews from Apple Podcasts. What do we have, Evan?
Evan Keeley: Here's one from Oboe Mom via Apple Podcasts, " You had me on the first episode I heard, Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Your insights and explanations have blown my mind. I loved it before, but I'll never hear it the same way again." Well, thank you so much, Oboe Mom.
John Banther: Yes. Thank you, Oboe mom, for the five stars. I wonder if it's a mom that plays oboe or a mom to a bunch of oboe- playing children.
Evan Keeley: Well, maybe both.
John Banther: Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown. For more information on this episode, visit the Show Notes page at classicalbreakdown.org. You can send me an email at Classical Breakdown at weta. org. And if you enjoyed this episode, please leave a review in your podcast app. I'm John Banther. Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown from WETA Classical.