Title: The Ballad of the Brown King & Selected Songs
Artist: The Dessoff Choirs & Orchestra; Malcolm J. Merriweather, cond.
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: November 1, 2019
The Ballad of the Brown King & Selected Songs, featuring music of composer Margaret Bonds, is a much needed album that will play an important role in bringing Bonds the wider recognition she deserves. A number of renowned artists, stretching from the present day back to Bonds’ lifetime, have recorded Bonds’ shorter compositions including her art songs and spiritual settings, as well as her sole published piece for solo piano, “Troubled Water.” But this performance by The Dessoff Choirs and Orchestra—with soprano Laquita Mitchell, mezzo-soprano Lucia Bradford, tenor Noah Stewart, and conductor Malcolm J. Merriweather—iis the world-premiere recording of not only The Ballad of the Brown King, but of any large-scale composition by Bonds, as most remain unpublished, much less professionally recorded.
Bonds produced The Ballad of the Brown King with her longtime professional collaborator and close personal friend, Langston Hughes, who supplied the libretto. The Ballad was first performed in 1954 in a shorter version with only piano accompaniment. Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, in 1960 Bonds requested poetry from Hughes for two new movements, expanded the Ballad’s instrumentation to full orchestra, and dedicated the work to Martin Luther King, Jr. Published in 1961, it subsequently received performances around the world. The fourth movement, “Mary Had a Baby,” was so successful that it was published separately in different arrangements, and although it never materialized, at one point Nina Simone was in negotiations with the publisher to record it herself. We can be grateful to this album for reintroducing what was once Bonds’ biggest hit.
A Christmas Cantata, the Ballad tells the nativity story with an emphasis on King Balthazar, one of the Three Magi, who has been described as African or dark-skinned in legends and artistic representations dating back to the Middle Ages. Hughes’ lyrics include verses such as, “Of all the kings who came to call / One was dark like me / And I’m so glad that he was there / Our little Christ to see” (emphasis added). Bonds enhances the poetry’s racial imagery through her elegant fusion of black musical idioms—gospel, calypso, blues, jazz, and spirituals—into predominantly Neo-Romantic, lush choral and orchestral writing. Deliberately employing black themes was a way for Bonds to express pride in her racial heritage and carve out a place for African American Christians within a culture of hegemonic white Christianity. She wrote in a 1961 letter about the Ballad, “I honestly want the propaganda of this piece spread all over the world.”
A cautionary note for listeners is that the instrumental accompaniment for the Ballad is Merriweather’s own arrangement for strings, organ, and harp instead of an original setting by Bonds for either piano or full orchestra. (I regretfully could not find mention of this fact beyond the last page of the liner notes.) Bonds was particularly proud of her orchestration, calling it “shimmering and fabulous,” and expressing the desire, “I want the orchestration to be so fine I can show it to the most distinguished conductor with no apology.” Despite her feelings about this particular orchestration, she often arranged her compositions differently for friends and various performing contexts. One could even argue Merriweather’s more homogenous orchestration creates a fitting blend between the strings and vocalists. In addition, the glittering harp and churchly organ enhance the Christmas imagery. It is unclear for what reasons the original orchestration was not performed (possibly budget constraints), but it is important for first-time Ballad listeners to know they are not hearing Bonds’ orchestration.
Five of Bonds’ art songs, including four with poetry by Hughes, conclude the album, carrying the theme of the Bonds-Hughes collaboration throughout. Merriweather shifts from his role of conductor to baritone soloist and is accompanied by harpist Ashley Jackson, who is also the author of the liner notes. The sparse sounds of the harp evoke a quiet atmosphere appropriate for the darker imagery of “To a Brown Girl Dead” and “Winter Moon” and the ethereal longing of “Dream Variation.” Yet in “Minstrel Man” and “I, Too,” despite incredibly beautiful playing from Jackson, the harp timbre struggles to support the resolute, driving quality of the vocal line and text. Again, it is not clearly noted that Bonds’ original accompaniment for piano has been transcribed for harp, but as other recorded versions with piano already exist for these songs (except for “To a Brown Girl Dead,” with poetry by Countee Cullen), the new instrumentation is a welcome addition to the current discography.
Merriweather and all collaborators deserve ample praise for this album that will help bring Bonds recognition as a composer of the highest caliber.
Reviewed by Joseph Stiefel