The world premiere of the “revised and extended” version of Margaret Bonds’s The Ballad of the Brown King (December 11, 1960)
HISTORY WAS MADE on this day in 1960. On December 11 — also a Sunday, as it is this year- the revised and extended (nine-movement) version of Margaret Bonds’s and Langston Hughes’s seminal Christmas cantata The Ballad of the Brown King received its world premiere in the Clark Auditorium of the YWCA at 50th St. at 8th Ave. in Harlem. The revised version was dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the performance was produced by the Emergency Committee for the Southern Freedom Struggle, led by one Maya Angelou (!). The Westminster Choir of the Church of the Master was conducted by Dr. Theodore (“Teddy”) Stent (1924–2018).
The title of The Ballad of the Brown King derives from an eleventh-century description of one of the magi, Balthazar. That description is often attributed to St. Bede the Venerable (673–735), but biblical and textual scholars have established that it was actually written by the Alsatian canon Manegold von Lautenbach (Pseudo-Bede, ca. 1030 — ca. 1103), who described Balthazar as being “a dark, fully bearded king.” This description rebuts White portrayals of the magi as White, thus countermanding White culture’s erasure of significant Blacks from history. More importantly, it reinstates Black folk into the central narrative of Black Christianity, recognizes a Black magus, and — especially significant in the context of the systemic racism of the U.S. — portrays the wise Balthazar as an equal of the other wise men who celebrated the arrival of the newborn Christ the King.
Bonds’s music breaks all the traditional barriers that segregated Black vernacular and Euro-American classical idioms out from one another, putting the outward form of a “classical” cantata i into the service of such diverse Black idioms as blues, calypso, and jazz. She was well aware of this. A couple of months earlier (Oct. 1, 1960) while copying out the parts, she wrote to Langston Hughes that “Tonight after I finished writing ‘Sing of the King Who Was Tall and Brown’ [No. VII of the revised version] I realized it can be done by the Modern Jazz Quartet without any words.” T hat statement reveals, via that “I realized” phrase, that this integrative polystylism was instinctual, second-nature to Bonds, not conscious or contrived. And it’s absolutely true; check out this recent virtual performance by Malcolm J. Merriweather and the Dessoff Choirs:
On 11 December 1960 musical history was made by Margaret Bonds, Langston Hughes, and all who contributed to that amazing performance. The Ballad of the Brown King has remained, arguably, the most well-known of the Bonds-Hughes collaborative projects: as it were, the magus of those projects. Why not celebrate the Brown King by listening to the entire cantata today?
Originally published at https://cooperm55.wixsite.com on December 11, 2022.