Musical Tributes to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Music filled the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as the lives of those around him. As a child, King took piano lessons from his mother, who was an accomplished organist, and he sang in the choir of his father’s church. When he met his wife, Coretta, she was a student at Boston’s New England Conservatory. Throughout his life — whether he was a schoolboy learning piano from his mother or a man on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial changing the world — music was everywhere.

Perhaps, then, one fitting way to pay tribute to Dr. King is through music. Here are three classical pieces that were composed to honor the legacy of this civil rights hero:

New Morning for the World – Joseph Schwanter

Perhaps the most important instrument of New Morning for the World is the voice: amid the orchestration are lines from 10 years of speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr. Since its premiere on Martin Luther King Day in 1983, Schwanter’s work has had many  voices lending their talented narrations to this work: voices like Danny Glover’s, James Earl Jones’, Coretta Scott King’s, and Sidney Portier’s.  The most important voice of the piece, however, belongs to the man who originally delivered the words one hears amid Schwanter’s music: Martin Luther King, Jr.


The Passion of Martin Luther King – Nicolas Flagello

In the months following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Nicolas Flagello composed the oratorio, The Passion of Martin Luther King, to honor the slain civil rights leader. Like Schwanter’s work, this piece incorporates excerpts of King’s speeches, the famous Dream speech in particular. Flagello’s piece premiered at the Kennedy Center in 1974, honoring the words that King first delivered just a few miles away on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial eleven years prior.

Listen to The Passion of Martin Luther King from Collector’s Corner with Henry Fogel


Epitaph For a Man Who Dreamed – Adolphus C. Hailstork

Composer Adolphus C. Hailstork has created numerous works honoring historical moments and figures: his Piano Trio memorializes Holocaust victims; his As Falling Leaves responded to the events of 9/11. Epitaph For a Man Who Dreamed – composed in 1979 – is Hailstork’s tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. “Showing his distinctive mastery of orchestration and harmony, it is a work of transcendent beauty that conveys the nobility of its subject, and serves as a tribute of acceptance,” wrote music scholar Dominique-René de Lerma.