When the late Nelson Mandela stood on 125th Street in Harlem in 1990, as part of a day-long visit to New York City, he invoked names from the American civil rights movement, including that of the opera singer Paul Robeson.
"Harlem signifies the glory of resistance," Mandela said, referring to the onetime neighborhood resident. A crowd estimated in the tens of thousands cheered at the reference. Mandela was visiting as part of an eight-city U.S. tour in his campaign against apartheid in South Africa. He attended a ticker-tape parade and spoke at City Hall (sister station WNYC broadcast the speech live).
The reference to Robeson may have been obligatory, but there's evidence that Mandela was familiar with the singer's recordings of Bach, Schubert and other composers.
While imprisoned at Robben Island penitentiary, Mandela got to know Helen Suzman, the noted South African anti-apartheid activist and politician. As the story goes, every Christmas, Suzman would send Mandela classical music records in an effort to assuage the harsh surroundings. Although he grew up mainly listening to popular South African music, he came to appreciate European composers, especially Tchaikovsky and Handel. In an often-repeated anecdote, one of Mandela's greatest pleasures was listening to classical recordings while watching the sunset.
Mandela didn't address this in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, but it's an image that has stuck and inspired many songwriters and composers. South Africa's first black president died Thursday at the age of 95.
The classical music world responded to the news on Twitter on Thursday:
We are deeply saddened at the loss of the Father of our Nation. Thank you for all you have done for the people of SA. RIP Madiba. All @ CTO.— Cape Town Opera (@CapeTOpera) December 5, 2013