The Well-Tempered Ear

What classical music best pays tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.?

January 18, 2010

By  Jacob Stockinger

Today, Monday, Jan. 18, is the official celebrations of the birthday of civil rights pioneer Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

There will be many memorial services, and almost all of them will feature music. For music is how we speak of great and deep things when we do not want to use ordinary words and ordinary sounds.

I expect that, for the most part, those who attend such ceremonies will hear spirituals, blues, hymns, jazz and maybe even some popular songs  and folk music. That is as it should be.

But I wonder: How much classical music will be played in Dr. King’s memory?

And I also wonder: What classical music would be most appropriate to play in his memory?

Of course some large works (or excerpts) like the requiems by Mozart, Brahms, Verdi and Faure come immediately to mind.

So do some famous funeral marches, including Chopin’s for piano and Beethoven’s (from the Symphony No.3 “Eroica”  and the Piano Sonata in A-Flat, Op. 26) come to mind. The Andante from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 and the finale from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony  (with its “Ode to Joy” and call to universal brotherhood) would be good choices.

But what available if you go off the beaten track?

Chopin’s preludes in E minor, as would a posthumously published Largo by Chopin that is not well known or often played.

There are many movements from cantatas by J.S. Bach that are appropriate, but the Cantata “Selig ist der Mann” (Blessed is the Man) comes to mind.

Or what about music by two African-Americans composers –Edward Joseph Collins or William Grant Still?

Still, my mind travels back to a deeply moving and unforgettable  performance of an aria (“Lascia ci’io pianga” or “Leave in sorrow that knows no morrow: )  in Handel’s opera “Rinaldo” that I heard performed in 1988 by a then East German opera company (little did we know that a year later the Berlin Wall would come down). They had changed the words to “Gib mir nur die Freiheit” or “Give Me Only Freedom.” It’s a fitting message for Dr. King, beautifully set to the gorgeous music by Handel.

Here’s a link to a version by Cecilia Bartoli:

And here is a link to another moving work worthy of remembrances of Dr. King. It’s J.S. Bach’s “Erbarme dich” (Have mercy on me) from his “St. Matthew Passion.” It is by Magdalena Kozina on YouTube:

Those are my small homages today for this year and this occasion. I hope you like them and I hope they move you as they do me — as does the memory of such a great man, a true liberator and bringer of freedom and justice.

But there are so many pieces of classical music — big and small, vocal and instrumental, old and modern — that would fit the occasion of honoring such a great and inspiring and influential figure.

What pieces of classical music come to your mind as a fitting tributes to honor Dr. King?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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