Remembering Dr. King Through the Power of Music

Monday, January 16, 2017 - 12:00 AM

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an artistic inspiration to many creators (Wikimedia Commons)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led an extraordinary life. As we step back to appreciate the legacy he left during his brief time on earth, take some time to reflect on his leadership and message with these compositions directly inspired by King himself.

"O King" (Luciano Berio)

Today, many of us may not realize just how radical his non-violent methods actually were. Also radical was Luciano Berio’s music, which does not fit sweetly into the generations of classical tradition that came before it; “O King” is a product of the composer’s interest in serialism and other emerging 20th century compositional techniques. Let that harsh sound act as a reminder of how revolutionary the activist was. Originally scored for one voice, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, “O King” makes its home in a sparse soundscape, where the voice intones more than sings. This work is short — only about five minutes — but a challenge to listen to. Listening while meditating on King, you begin to hear how the music is a representation of his work, violent end and legacy.

For most of the piece, the voice presents listeners with a deconstruction of the phrase “O Martin Luther King,” and waits until the final moments before rising above the ensemble to say his full name. Music publisher Universal Edition describes the effect as “punctured,” a word that also describes the actions of the bullet that cut down the peacemaker in his prime.

Passion of Martin Luther King (Nicolas Flagello)
Nicolas Flagello was deeply moved by King’s message and was almost certainly devastated when he learned of the activist’s death in 1968. The following year, he debuted his liturgically inspired Passion of Martin Luther King.

In the liner notes for a 2006 release of the Passion, author Walter Simmons notes that Flagello was moved to compose this piece upon hearing a comment by Pope Paul VI regarding King’s death: “I liken the life of this man to the life of our Lord.”

Flagello revisited an earlier composition that included his settings of several liturgical texts. He combined that shelved work with new music. The resulting Passion alternates that sacred Latin church music with new vocal settings of King’s speeches, including the familiar “I Have a Dream.”

New Morning for the World (Joseph Schwanter)

The most recent of these pieces, Joseph Schwantner's New Morning for the World: Daybreak of Freedom was commissioned by telecommunications company AT&T and made its premiere on January 15, 1983 — what would have been King’s 54th birthday.

Like Flagello’s Passion, New Morning employs the text of King’s speeches to provide emotional context for the work. In this case, the text is not sung, but instead spoken. At its premiere, Pittsburgh Pirates star Willie Stargell's powerful voice assumed the cantorial duties, invoking King’s spirit with his careful recitation.


More in:

Comments [3]

HYH from Long Island

Interesting blog......would be interested in additional works by African American composers but glad to see any works in relation to Dr. King and his messages of civil rights, justice for all, peace......... Speaking of which......
Dear 'The Baron from Long Island City"
It could just as easily be said that millions of American ignored Dr. King's messages of peacefully fighting for equality, respect, justice for all, as well as, judging by the content of one's character by voting for an unqualified, known presidential candidate who has so far advocated hate speech, condescending racial stereotypes, 'locker room' sexist talk and bullying of anyone who disagrees with him verses engaging in thoughtful and mutually respectful discourse on issues. It's all in one's perspective and goes both ways if that's all we want to do -- wrestle in the mud forever.

Your assumption that citizens voted only according to race above loyalty to the welfare of our country is offensive and extremely untrue in total. While I'm sure there are some who did indeed voted based on race loyalty -- I'm also sure there are some who voted in this recent election for the same reason.

We can go tit-for-tat all day and get nowhere of any value or we can attempt to assume that as Americans, we are all responsible for and entitled to engaging in our political process through respectful dialogue, exchanging of ideas and concerns, experiences that inform our beliefs, willingness to compromise and see the other side and hope that our new administration will hear us ALL and engage accordingly.

While we cannot control the extreme behavior and rhetoric on either side of the great divide, we can choose to respect others as we wish to be respected and individually respond and engage with each other so as to positively impact our great nation.

Jan. 23 2017 11:33 AM
N. from New York

I was struck by the surprising lack of works by any African American composers in this musical tribute to King. If not knowledgeable about these works, I question why would the writer not seek to find any, especially in light of the topic. Sadly, this seems to be less of a deliberate move, than an unconscious oversight and even dismissal of the notion that African Americans write concert music.

Jan. 17 2017 10:16 AM
The Baron from Long Island City, NY

There are many Americans who eagerly and ostentatiously wrap themselves in the mantle of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s legacy but who are much less enthusiastic about actually following the principles that he advocated.

Dr. King envisioned a colorblind society in which people would be judged by the content of their character rather than by the color of their skin, but millions of people totally ignored his sage advice by twice voting for an unqualified and virtually unknown presidential candidate based, either in part or in whole, on the color of his skin.

After eight years the candidate that these myopic ProgLibs chose is leaving our country more divided than it has been at any time since the Civil War. Furthermore, they are loudly putting the blame not on him where it rightly belongs but on his successor, who hasn't even taken office yet. This incredible assertion is enough to make one question Aristotle's definition of Man as a rational animal.

Putting loyalty to an ideology or to one's race above loyalty to the welfare of our country does not augur well for the future of our republic. As was often the case Abraham Lincoln said it best: "A house divided against itself cannot stand."
The Great American Experiment - it was a nice idea while it lasted.

Jan. 16 2017 09:52 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

The WQXR e-newsletter. Show highlights, links to music news, on-demand concerts, events from The Greene Space and more.

Follow WQXR 







About WQXR Blog

Read WQXR's coverage of classical music news, trends, commentary and more here at the WQXR Blog.