The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Ear asks again — why hasn’t an opera about Martin Luther King Jr. been written? What classical music should be played to honor him? | January 16, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is an important and, in some parts of the United States, still  controversial holiday: Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

martin luther king 2

Such an occasion and its artistic celebration assumes even greater importance now that we are on the verge of the Trump Era, which starts this coming Friday with the Inauguration of President-elect Donald J. Trump.

Once again The Ear looked for classical music to mark the occasion and the holiday. But the results he found were limited. Do we really need to hear Samuel Barber’s famous and sadly beautiful but overplayed “Adagio for Strings” again on this day?

So The Ear asks the same question he asked two years ago: Why hasn’t anyone written an opera about the pioneering civil rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in 1968 and would today be 88? 

Martin Luther King speech

Here is a link to that more extended post that asks the same question:

If you know of such an opera, please let The Ear know in the COMMENT section.

Or perhaps a composer could write something about King similar to Aaron Copland‘s popular “A Lincoln Portrait.” King certainly provided lots of eloquent words for a inspiring text or narration.

And if there is classical music that you think is appropriate to mark the occasion, please leave word of it, with a YouTube link if possible.

In the meantime, in the YouTube video below The Ear offers the first movement from the “Afro-American Symphony” by the underperformed  black American composer William Grant Still (1874-1954):


  1. Scenes from the Life of a Martyr (an Oratorio) by Undine Smith Moore


    Comment by Ashleigh Gordon — November 10, 2021 @ 6:48 am

  2. Thanks for the question. It prompted me to play “Portraits by Ellington,” by Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Not classical and probably not a favorite of King, but I like it.
    According to a story in Huffington Post, King liked hymns and “Balm in Gilead” and “Precious Lord Take my Hand” were his favorites. His widow wrote, “i never really told him he couldn’t sing. He had a good voice for a choir.”


    Comment by katielmulligan — January 16, 2017 @ 12:38 pm

  3. dear ear; new morning for the world joseph schwantner


    Comment by John H Harbison — January 16, 2017 @ 12:34 pm

  4. As a choral guy, my mind turns to that literature. Here is today’s playlist:

    Herbert Howells – Take Him, Earth, For Cherishing

    Dvorak – Stabat Mater

    Britten – Cantata misericordium

    Schnittke – Choir Concerto – esp. mvmt. IV. Sej trud, shto nachinal ja s upavan’jem (Finish the Work Which I Began)

    Finzi – Requiem de Camera

    Grieg – 4 Psalms, Op. 74, esp. No. 4. I Himmelen (In Heaven Above)

    H. Howells – O Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem

    A. Bruckner – Os justi

    M. Durufle – Ubi Caritas

    Robert Shaw, arr. – Amazing Grace

    A. Part – Lamentate

    Schoenberg – Frieda auf Erden

    J. Tavener – Tears of the Angels

    E. Whitacre – When David Heard

    H. Howells – Hymnus Paradisi


    Comment by GuyS — January 16, 2017 @ 11:03 am

  5. Though not written by a black, Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man seems appropriate — when he was assassinated MLK, Jr. was in Memphis to support the black sanitation workers on strike. It was dirty, dangerous work, more so for the black workers than for the whites, and they were paid less. It doesn’t get much more ‘common man’ than that, both in the sense that they were people with little power or influence, and that he had a great deal in common with them.


    Comment by slfiore — January 16, 2017 @ 10:44 am

  6. While not an opera, Opera News has this news about a “passion” written for MLK by Nicolas Flagello. It also features the London Symphony Orchestra, the Ambrosian Singers, and I Musici.


    Comment by FFlambeau — January 16, 2017 @ 6:03 am

  7. Maybe opera isn’t the right genre? It is, after all, perceived as snobbish, upper class, and mostly European. Note too that there are very, very few blacks in the opera world.

    Here are 10 popular songs, including one by Stevie Wonder, that were written about MLK:

    Here’s another list from the New Yorker:


    Comment by FFlambeau — January 16, 2017 @ 5:57 am

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