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Music Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Reflect, Mourn, Celebrate, and Regroup through Music

Saturday, January 15, 2022, marked what would have been Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 93rd birthday. Dr. King’s leadership during his lifetime led to a national reckoning over racial injustice, bringing about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It seems almost poetic that this day falls when it does in the calendar year. The holidays are now becoming a distant memory as people begin to fall into new routines. It very much feels like a fresh start, one where we have the choice between continuing to fight or becoming complacent. In 2022, let us commit to not becoming “the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social justice," which Dr. King referred to in his 1963 "Letter from Birmingham Jail."

On this national day of remembrance, we’d like to share some pieces of music inspired by Dr. King’s life and legacy. We’ve also created a special Spotify Playlist which includes most of the pieces outlined below, and even a few more! If you find something new, be sure to add it to your music library, concert programs, and future lesson plans. As always, we welcome you to share your favorite music selections that we may have missed.

We hope that you will find solace and strength through this music we’ve compiled; may you give yourself space to reflect, mourn, celebrate, or whatever you need to regroup for the long road ahead. Two bills are currently before the Senate: the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Similar versions have already passed in the House, but the Senators who support these bills must first overcome their colleagues’ filibusters. The filibuster has long been used to derail civil rights legislation in The Senate, and unfortunately, the present is no different.

Now is the time to demand that The Senate overrides the filibuster and passes meaningful voting rights legislation to stop our dangerous slide towards authoritarianism. Call or write to your Senator and the President to make your voice heard!

“Frederick Douglass told us a long time ago: ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand.’” — Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter


Sinfonía en Negro­—Homage to Martin Luther King

Leonardo Balada

Leonardo Balada grew up in Barcelona in a liberal family under Francisco Franco's fascist regime. An opponent of oppression in all its forms, Balada eventually moved to the United States, where he came in contact with the nascent Civil Rights Movement. This culminated with Balada meeting Dr. King in 1967, one year before his assasination. Impacted by this event, Balada decided to focus on Dr. King as the subject for a new symphony after receiving a commission from Spain’s RTVE Symphony Orchestra. The result is a powerful depiction of the journey of Black people in the Americas from slavery to freedom in four movements: “Oppression,” “Chains,” “Vision,” and “Triumph.”

The piece is scored for full orchestra with a large percussion section that includes piano and actual chains. It was a seminal work for Balada, marking his first time fusing folk and traditional techniques with the avant-garde. It premiered in 1969 at the Teatro Real in Madrid, and soon made its way to the United States, where it was performed at Carnegie Hall and other notable venues. However, by the 1970s, classical audiences had started to become less interested in modern music and the initial success of this symphony lost much of its early momentum.

Montgomery Variations

Margaret Bonds

This orchestral work is a group of freestyle variations based on the spiritual “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me.” Bonds, herself a lifelong activist, wrote and dedicated the piece to Dr. King in 1964 after her 1963 Southern Tour with baritone Eugene Brice and the Manhattan Melodaires, which included stops in Montgomery, Alabama and the surrounding area. The work was never performed during the composer's lifetime, and like her friend and contemporary Florence Price, Bonds's music and legacy were almost lost to the annals of history. According to The Washington Post, Montgomery Variations and other pieces by Bonds were found in 2017 “next to a dumpster, waiting to be thrown out.”

Beyond honoring the memory of Dr. King, the seven movements evoke other milestone events of the Civil Rights Movement, such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the spread of the Freedom Movement, and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham. The movements are as follows:

  1. The Decision

  2. Prayer Meeting

  3. March

  4. Dawn in Dixie

  5. One Sunday in the South

  6. Lament

  7. Benediction

With only a small handful of performances on record, Montgomery Variations is one of the least performed pieces in Bonds’s catalogue. Most recently—and fittingly—the Montgomery Symphony Orchestra opened its 2021 season with a performance of this remarkable work, and the Minnesota Orchestra’s 2021 live recording (featured below) presents a truly stunning rendition that is sure to become a paragon. However, future performances and recordings face hurdles imposed by the provisions of the Copyright Act of 1976. Because Bonds died prior to this law’s passage and did not leave a will, the copyright status of her compositional output is ambiguous at best, and her music will not enter the public domain for another 20 years at the earliest. Still, we encourage orchestras with the budget to do so to consider programming this piece, an exemplary and iconic work by one of this country’s most underappreciated 20th-century composers.

Three Black Kings

Duke Ellington

Although primarily known as a leader of the Big Band scene, Ellington preferred to eschew labels and often made use of a full orchestra in his compositions. One such work was Three Black Kings, commissioned by the Dance Theatre of Harlem and intended as a “eulogy for [Dr. King].” In 1973, Ellington tasked Luther Henderson with orchestrating for the piece, which he originally pictured as a ballet. Ellington rarely wrote the final notes of a composition until the day of its premiere, so when he died in 1974, it fell to his son Mercer to complete the almost finished piece in a style resembling his father’s. Henderson completed his orchestration of a version for symphony orchestra and jazz ensemble that Mercer premiered at a 1976 tribute concert for his father. Also that year, renowned choreographer Alvin Ailey created the ballet to accompany the piece, which his dance troupe performed during its 1976–77 season. Ellington’s longtime friend, conductor Maurice Peress, later rescored the work for orchestra with jazz soloists (featured below).

The piece is written in three movements: “King of the Magi, Balthazar”; “King Solomon, Son of King David and Beersheba”; and “Martin Luther King.” The third movement in particular represents a departure from Ellington's usual compositional style, utilizing gospel themes to represent Dr. King and his role as a leader of the Baptist church. In 2021, acclaimed jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard—whose opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones opened the Metropolitan Opera’s 2021–22 season, marking the first time The Met staged an opera by a Black composer in its 143-year history—created a reduced orchestration of the “Martin Luther King” movement that the Los Angeles Philharmonic premiered on February 6, 2021. Without the addition of auxiliary winds and percussion, Blanchard’s new pared-down arrangement is more easily programmed by smaller orchestras.

Passion of Martin Luther King

Nicolas Flagello

Italian-American composer Nicolas Flagello wrote his “Passion of Martin Luther King” in 1968, after Dr. King’s untimely death. Author Walter Simmons noted that Flagello was moved to compose the piece after hearing a comment by Pope Paul VI regarding King’s death: “I liken the life of this man to the life of our Lord.” He combined movements from Pentaptych, one of his earlier liturgical pieces, with new musical settings of Dr. King’s speeches to create a truly unique work in ten movements for SATB chorus, orchestra, and bass-baritone soloist. The movements are as follows:

1. Hosanna Filio David

2. At the Center of Non-Violence

3. Cor Jesu

4, In the Struggle for the Freedom

5. Et Flagellis Subditum

6. We've Got Some Difficult Days Ahead

7. Death Is Inevitable

8. Stabat Mater

9. Jubilate Deo

10. I Have a Dream

Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed

Adolphus Hailstork

Dedicated to Dr. King and premiered in 1980, this gorgeous work carries a generally somber and contemplative tone throughout, but includes hopeful and uplifting moments as well. According to Hailstork, “Technically the piece is a study in understatement and control. There is no virtuosity. There are no sudden dramatic effects. Harmony is simple, coloration is medium to dark. There is a very restrained and careful control of climax, there being only one at the end of the work.”

Hailstork also notes, “the delicate entrance of the harp at 5:31…[represents] Dr. King’s dream ‘that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.’” Listeners are encouraged to listen to “the bold way the piece finishes starting at 7:16. It begins out of thin air, but it becomes the loudest moment of the piece. I interpreted this ending as an urgent call to action.”

Hailstork has stated that the piece “represents the graveside service of a great man. The mourners gather and sing a spiritual, the music gradually swelling as more people arrive and join in the singing. After reflecting on the hopes and dreams inspired by this leader, they lift their bowed heads and move to carry on the work he began.”

I Dream

Douglas Tappin

The libretto and score for this Rhythm and Blues Opera was written by U.K. composer Douglas Tappin while he was living in Atlanta. In preparation, he fully immersed himself in the subject of the Civil Rights Movement, including talking to people who had been a part of it, such as members of Dr. King’s family and some of his closest friends. The focus of the work is the thirty-six hours leading up to Dr. King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, with some artistic liberties thrown in, as not much is known about Dr. King’s last hours. In Tappin’s own words, “I was pondering what Dr. King had said… about climbing to the top of the mountain and seeing a future he may not share with the people he was speaking to.” Within this musical drama, the audience witnesses dreams, reminiscences, and premonitions of Dr. King’s life, leading up to his final moments. The opera premiered this past September at Opera Carolina in Charlotte, North Carolina, and we hope other opera companies will add it to their lineup for future seasons!


This blog post was written by Erin Schwab (PROTESTRA Marketing Coordinator) and Ian Vlahović (PROTESTRA Co-founder, Director of Operations & Board Chair).


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