Saturday, December 4, 2010

'The Ballad of the Brown King' by Langston Hughes & Margaret Bonds in Long Beach Dec. 4 & 12

[Margaret A. Bonds]

The compositions of the African American composer and pianist Margaret Allison Bonds (1913-1972) have been compiled by Prof. Dominique-René de Lerma of Lawrence University Conservatory, and are presented along with a biography of the composer at

Long Beach, California
Posted: 12/04/2010
American Epiphanies
What: Holiday concert by the Long Beach Chorale.
When: 7 p.m. Saturday, 4 p.m. Dec. 12.
Where: Grace First Presbyterian Church, 3955 Studebaker Road, Long Beach.
Admission: $20, $15 students; limited free parking in the lot to the south of the building.
Information: 562-427-1931 or

"Behold, there came wise men from the East to Jerusalem. - "The Gospel According to St. Matthew," King James Bible
By Al Rudis Staff Writer
The New Testament didn't say how many there were, but because they gave Jesus gold, frankincense and myrrh, Christian tradition decided there were three of them. Eventually, it was also decided that they were kings, and often they were given names and origins. In some of the church writings, one of the three was identified as being darker than the others.

That's where Langston Hughes and Margaret Bonds come in. The famous poet and the lesser-known composer collaborated on a work for piano and voice called "The Ballad of the Brown King," which Bonds later made into a cantata for full chorus, soloists and orchestra. It premiered in December 1954, in New York City, and for a while it was performed a lot, mostly in churches. Then it sort of disappeared. Fast-forward half a century to 2010 in Long Beach, and the cantata is once again part of the Christmas season, thanks to the Long Beach Chorale, which performs it Saturday and Dec. 12 at Grace Presbyterian Church.

"Hughes' text picks up on the fact that one of these kings is the brown king, the dark-skinned king," said Eliza Rubenstein, the chorale's artistic director. "Hughes reframes this bit of symbolism as sort of a point of African-American cultural pride." A soloist begins the cantata with the lines, "Of the three wise men who came to the king/One was a brown man, so they sing." "That sets the tone for the entire cantata," said Rubenstein in a phone interview last week. "It's a point of entry into this famous biblical story for a demographic that might have felt alienated from it at the time. Consider that the cantata dates from right around the time of desegregation and the stirrings of the early civil rights movement in the mid-1950s. So this was a way in which Langston Hughes could reflect an African-American consciousness into the story."

In addition to the narrator speaking from this perspective in such lines as "Oh, among the kings who came to call/One was dark like me!/Oh, I'm so glad he was there/Our little Christ to see," the music of Bonds also ties the culture and the Epiphany together. Born in Chicago in 1913, Bonds earned bachelor's and master's degrees in music from Northwestern University and won fame as a pianist. She was the first black soloist to play with the Chicago Symphony. But her major achievements were as a composer and arranger, starting at age 5.

Although she mostly worked in traditional classical forms, such as this cantata, Bonds often introduced African-American styles into her compositions. "`Brown King' is really meant to be representative of, and even an homage to, African-American culture. These are all typically African-American styles of music," said Rubenstein.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Correction: the performances are at 7 PM on Saturday, December 11, and again at 4 PM on Sunday, December 12, 2010.