From the very beginning of his life, music was a central, unifying force for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. While his father was the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, his mother was the church’s choir director. She would hold weekly choir rehearsals at the family home on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta. As a young boy, King took piano lessons (the piano he practiced on still sits in the front parlor) and he would eventually join the choir his mom conducted at Ebenezer Baptist. When he went off to school, King kept singing. He was a member of the prestigious Glee Club at Morehouse College and he married a soprano and music education graduate from New England Conservatory, Corretta Scott.
Dr. King’s writings and speeches are filled with references to music. His inspiring dream for America, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., concludes with the exhortation to “transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”
Below is some music for this holiday. Some of which honors Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. directly and some of which speaks to the causes he vigorously championed and ultimately gave his life for.
Duke Ellington’s final composition was a ballet score commissioned by the Dance Theatre of Harlem for jazz band and symphony orchestra called Three Black Kings. The gospel-inflected final movement is a tribute to Dr. King.
24 years before Dr. King’s celebrated “I Have a Dream” speech, contralto Marian Anderson stood on those same steps of the Lincoln Memorial and sang for an audience of 75,000 after having been denied a performance at the Daughters of the American Revolution’s Constitution Hall because she was Black.
William Levi Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony is an inspiring symphony from 1934 and one that deserves to have more than just three total recordings.
Sanctum is Courtney Bryan’s response to events of police brutality which birthed the Black Lives Matter movement. The piece incorporates elements of recorded sound including the voices of protestors in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 following the shooting of Michael Brown.
Commissioned by the Sphinx Organization as a tribute for the 200th anniversary of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” Jessie Montgomery’s Banner aims to answer the question: “What does an anthem for the 21st century sound like in today’s multi-cultural environment?”
While today is a day to celebrate the life and work of Dr. King, this elegy by Adolphus Hailstork is a haunting tribute to a life tragically cut short because of racism and hate.
Often referred to as the “Dean of Black Women Composers,” Undine Smith Moore’s oratorio Scenes from the Life of a Martyr was written in the years following Dr. King’s assassination. This excerpt, from a recent Detroit Symphony Orchestra concert, captures the visceral shock at the news of his death before ultimately striking a hopeful tone.
Los Angeles composer Derrick Spiva’s recent work American Mirror may be the most vivid realization of Dr. King’s dream of a “symphony of brotherhood.” Drawing on musical influences from countless immigrant cultures, Spiva weaves together a work that celebrates the diversity of this country.