Reflect on these 6 works for Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech during the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963.AP

January 12, 2023

After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the world came together to pay tribute to his legacy and continue the fight for equal rights that still exists today. The music community was no different. Many organizations paid tribute with performances, while others took to the streets. Composers did the one thing they do best, compose. In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which is Monday, please reflect on these six musical pieces that commemorate his life and work.

The Passion of Martin Luther King — Nicolas Flagello


New York-based composer Nicolas Flagello reworked one of his liturgical compositions shortly after the assassination of King to help heal the community. He inserted quotes from speeches made by King and took biblical excerpts that express themes of brotherhood and faith to create a composition that speaks to legacy.


Sinfonía en Negro­: Homage to Martin Luther King — Leonardo Balada


In 1967, Spanish-born, Juilliard-trained composer Leonardo Balada met King and was instantly inspired. Following King’s assassination, Balada completed this 20-minute piece in honor of his life. The four movements of the work follow the progress of Black Americans that Balada believed King helped advance. The movements move from “Oppression” to “Chains” to “Vision” and finally “Triumph.”


Why? (The King of Love Is Dead) — Nina Simone

Nina Simone said during her introduction to Why? (The King of Love Is Dead) to an audience three days after King was murdered, “We want to do a tune written for today, for this hour, for Dr. Martin Luther King. This tune is written about him and for him.” The song was written by Simone’s bassist, Gene Taylor, and honors the courage and compassion of King. Even quicker to emerge was the tribute from Otis Spann. On the day after King’s assassination, the blues pianist, a member of Muddy Waters’ band, performed two newly composed blues for the fallen civil-rights leader: “Blues For Martin Luther King” and “Hotel Lorraine.”


Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed — Adolphus Hailstork


Hailstork wrote this funeral piece with an Elizabethan idea in mind. This work is solemn, with no embellishments or showmanship. It marches diligently to the singular climax at the end, honoring his hero. The piece is said to represent the graveside service of King, with mourners gathering and singing a spiritual that gradually swells as more people arrive and join in the singing.


O King — Luciano Berio

“This short piece is a tribute to the memory of Martin Luther King. The text simply consists of the enunciation of the Black martyr’s name. The words and their components are submitted to a musical analysis, which is integrated into the structure of the piece. The voice enunciates the different phonetic elements of the name, which is gradually recomposed toward the end: ‘O Martin Luther King.’” — Luciano Berio


Three Black Kings: No.3. Martin Luther King — Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington is known for his jazz acumen, but during his life, he did compose symphonic works. His final work was the symphonic suite Three Black Kings. Comprising three movements, each depicting a different “king” — Balthazar the Black king of the Magi, King Solomon, and Ellington’s good friend Martin Luther King Jr. — the work had to be completed by Mercer Ellington, Duke Ellington’s son. Mercer said, “Pop had many superstitions, and one of them was never to finish writing a piece until the day of its initial performance. I analyzed it, trying to figure out how he intended to end it, but it wasn’t easy because he left me no clues.”