The Ballad of the Brown King (Bonds)

My friend Allegra Martin, soon to begin a position at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA, would like to share a lovely and interesting nine-movement cantata by a composer you might not know about! Since this is a Christmas piece, you can start your planning for next year, whether you have a church, community, or school group.

The Ballad of the Brown King, music by Margaret Bonds, text by Langston Hughes

SATB, with SATB solos. A version for chorus, soloists, and orchestra also exists, but is not in print.

Why do singers like it?
It’s got extremely lush harmonies that have their roots both in European choral music and American jazz. The melodies are very beautiful, and Bonds often uses modal harmonies that are very vivid. The text is very direct and colorful, as is typical of Langston Hughes! At the same time, it’s not difficult and would be accessible to a wide variety of choruses – Bonds wrote it for a church choir.

What is meaningful about it?
For this question, I’m going to take the liberty of providing some background about Bonds, lifted from my program notes when I conducted it last fall!

Margaret Bonds (1913-1972) was an African-American composer, concert pianist, and educator. She was born in Chicago and was the first African American to solo with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the age of twenty. She went to Northwestern University, and moved to New York City at the age twenty-six. Her career involved not only writing classical works, but musical theater, songs for Tin Pan Alley, touring and performing as a concert pianist, and working as a church music director and in education. She won numerous awards and was highly regarded while she was alive. The Ballad of the Brown King was broadcast in a televised concert on NBC in 1960.

Bonds was very dedicated to the idea of combining Western European classical style, which was the foundation of her musical training, with African American music. She had a great deal of pride in her African American heritage and felt that her most important role as a composer was bringing these two cultures together. Growing up in Chicago she formed close ties to poet Langston Hughes and they maintained a lifelong friendship, with letters back and forth on a weekly basis that span decades. They worked on the cantata “The Ballad of the Brown King” together, Hughes writing the lyrics for Bonds to set, and both dedicating it to Martin Luther King, Jr. This work is mentioned frequently in their letters, and Bonds writes in July 1961, “Most of the piece is based on “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See.” This melodic reference can be clearly heard in the opening melody of the tenor soloist. She also writes, “I honestly want the propaganda of this piece spread all over the world. Further, in the composing of the music I compared the march [on] Montgomery with the ride on the desert.” The famous Selma to Montgomery march that preceded the passing of the Voting Rights Act later that same year did not happen until 1965, so it’s not clear to what event Bonds is referring, but it could be the year-long Montgomery bus boycotts that led to the Supreme Court declaring in 1956 that segregated buses were unconstitutional. In an earlier letter in 1960 she writes, “I’ll love it when more singers who are NOT Negroes recognize the universal message in our songs and sign them far and wide. It’s happening more and more…” I myself certainly hope it does!

What is challenging about it?
The piano accompaniment is quite hard, as Bonds was an extremely accomplished concert pianist. She tends to assume she’ll probably be playing the piano part herself in her compositions, and as a result they are not very merciful. There are also a few difficult harmonies to lock in here and there, particularly in movement 2, but on the whole it’s not a difficult piece.

What is easy about it?
The text is in English, the whole piece is very tonal and melodic, and in general it tends to come pretty fast in rehearsal!

Where did you perform it?
I performed it at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for my doctorate recital in November 2016. You can see a link of this performance here.
(Unfortunately it’s in conductor-view as I was using this video for job applications.)
I’m happy to say there are other performances on Youtube as well!

Where can you order it?
It’s originally published by Sam Fox. You can get permission to copy it from Alfred, by going to this page.
The piece is available at many libraries, but if someone does not have access to WorldCat, I’m happy to send them a copy, as I bought enough copies from Alfred for my chorus to sing it, and still have those copies to give away if I choose! Contact me at allegra (dot) martin (at) gmail (dot) com.

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