Martin Luther King Day is a national holiday in the USA, celebrated on 3rd Monday of January each year. Originally created in 1983 as a federal holiday to commemorate the January 15th birthday of the country’s most prominent civil rights leader, it has come to be regarded, perhaps especially by those too young to remember him, as a national day of service and volunteerism.
But it wasn’t always a given that there would be a Martin Luther King Day. When AT&T commissioned the prolific young American composer Joseph Schwantner (b. 1943) to write a piece in honor of what would have been Martin Luther King Jr.’s 53rd birthday in 1982, Southern politicians had successfully held at bay a national movement to create a national holiday in honor of King. Schwantner’s challenging 26-minute piece, titled “New Morning for the World: Daybreak of Freedom,” is still frequently performed to this day.
King has inspired other classical pieces too, of course, ranging from Nicolas Flagello’s haunting nine-part cantata titled The Passion of Martin Luther King (1968) to Max Roach’s famous jazz drum duet incorporating King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and he will no doubt inspire more. It is the lives of our most iconic and vulnerable heroes who tend to attract the attention of classical composers, who see the strong, poignant essence of their stories and work—with varying degrees of success—to capture it in music.