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“I Have a Dream” 50th Anniversary Concert

August 22, 2013

Before exiting the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama, a visitor steps into the final room. It is not a gift shop. It is more like a concert hall. Here Martin Luther King Jr. performs on the big screen. It’s his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, which he delivers with passion, power and an unerring sense of timing, like a great Shakespearean.

In the last half of the speech, King lifts his head, no longer reading from his notes. His voice rises and falls in lines thatseem improvised which, by this point in the speech, they are: “I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” He croons like a great jazz singer:“From every mountaintop, let freedom ring!”

 King’s speeches are peppered with song lyrics, including those of “America,” also known as “My Country, Tis of Thee.” He borrows from hymn verses, gospel songs and Negro spirituals. Lee Hoiby’s setting of the latter part of the “I Have a Dream” speech echoes these musical references, but it also captures beautifully the lyric drama of King’s vocal performance.

 The spirituals played a crucial role in Dr. King’s crusade for civil rights. During the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, Mahalia Jackson sang “I’ve Been ‘Buked,” and Marian Anderson sang “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” The spirituals helped define the purpose of the civil rights movement, placing it in the context of a universal and eternal struggle for social justice, rooted in community and prayer.

 The themes of hope and salvation that are contained in the spirituals have influenced composers throughout the world. English composer Michael Tippett used the spirituals in his oratorio A Child of our Time, where he drew upon theirhealing power. The harsh quality of Tippett’s subject, revolving around an aspect the Nazi pogrom known asKristallnacht, is balanced by the deeply consoling tone of the spirituals. The fact that the spirituals are from another time and place helps elevate Tippett’s work, bestowing on it universality and timelessness.

 The “I Have a Dream” speech is rich in allusion. It makesreference to the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the U. S. Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. King quotes frequently from scripture, at one point drawing from Isaiah verses that are well known to every enthusiast of Baroque music: “Every valley shall be exalted, and every hill made low.” The final words of the speech are drawn from a 19th century Baptist hymn (probably not a spiritual as he had thought):“Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last!”

 Four and a half years later, in the final speech of his life, King once again quoted the lyrics of a favorite song.Dominic Tierney, associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College, tells the story in a recent issue of The Atlantic (“America’s Song of Itself”). I quote his article with liberal use of ellipsis:

 “On April 3, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. rose to speak in support of striking sanitation workers inMemphis, Tennessee. “I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land,” King announced. “And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.” And then he closed in his lyrical voice: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” The next day he lay dying on the second floor of the Lorraine Motel, struck in the cheek by an assassin’s bullet.

 “The last line that King ever spoke in public came from a song, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” written by Julia Ward Howe in 1861. It was a fitting finale to the life of a great American because the story of the “Battle Hymn” is the story of the United States. The song, now approaching its 150th anniversary, is a hallowed treasure and a second national anthem… But most of all, the “Battle Hymn” is a warrior’s cry and a call to arms. Its vivid portrait of sacred violence captures how Americans fight wars… as a righteous struggle—a holy war for a democratic peace.”

 The principles motivating both the March on Washington and the “I Have a Dream” speech – freedom of expression, fairness of economic opportunity, individual responsibility and collective action – lie at the heart of Alan Paton’s classic novel Cry, the Beloved Country. The story is set in South Africa amidst the racial turbulence of 1940’s Johannesburg. It describes a murder, motivated by economic need, which resonates throughout the community in ways both tragic and hopeful.

 In Paton’s novel, the murdered man had been revered for his advocacy on behalf of the native people of South Africa. He had been a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln, and Lincoln’s writings and speeches play an important partin the story. The novel’s themes of justice and social responsibility are expressed in such a way that they have proven meaningful for readers throughout the world ever since the book was first published. It is fitting that for tonight’s performance of Kurt Weill’s musical adaptation of the novel, the Boston Landmarks Orchestra has once again recruited its One City Choir, drawing on volunteer singers from across our community.  

 When Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson were granted therights to create a staged adaptation of Cry, the Beloved Country, they learned that the film rights had been given to another party. A filmed version of Cry, the Beloved Country was already destined for the silver screen. Wishing to reserve the option of eventually turning their Broadwayshow into a film, Weill and Anderson changed the title from Cry, the Beloved Country to Lost in the Stars. They felt that a new film, following what they hoped would be a successful Broadway run, should have the same title as the staged version.

 When Paton attended the premiere of Lost in the Stars, hewas impressed with Weill’s music but upset by many of Anderson’s revisions. Anderson had inserted a nihilisticphilosophical perspective, suggesting that people live by and large as lonely beings without meaningful connection to others. As the title song put it: “we’re lost out here in the stars.” But Paton’s intention had been completely the opposite. He contended that all members of a society areinterconnected, and that the actions of each individual affect the whole. All people must take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, he argued. Furthermore, he believed that the duty to care for each other is bound by our relationship to God.

 When composer and musicologist David Drew created a concert version of Lost in the Stars in 1988, he changed the name back to Cry, the Beloved Country. He did so in part out of respect for what he felt was Kurt Weill’s original intention to adhere as closely as possible to the language and meaning of the novel. It is Drew’s version that is performed tonight, augmented by readings from several passages of the book, included by permission of the Paton estate.

 Photographer James Westwater has collaborated with orchestras over many years, combining photography and music in an art form he calls photochoreography. During tonight’s performance of Lincoln Portrait, photographscollected and organized by Mr. Westwater are shown on a screen suspended over the orchestra. Most of these pictures are taken from the collection of Civil War images captured by Mathew Brady and photographers in his studio. Toward the end of the work, the pictures change to 20th century images, including a photograph of Dr. King at the Lincoln Memorial.

 This spring, one of our Breaking Down Barriers advisors, Christopher Robinson of Boston University, alerted us to the fact that there existed no standard American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation of the speech. TheBoston Landmarks Orchestra approached the estate of Martin Luther King Jr., which confirmed this fact, and enthusiastically endorsed the idea of creating such an interpretation. As a result, the orchestra has commissioned the first-ever officially sanctioned interpretation of the speech. It has been created by Richard Bailey of Boston University and is performed tonight by deaf artist Misha Blood.

 The ideas expressed in the “I Have a Dream” speech were potent, but they were not new. History was made because of the persuasiveness and universality of Dr. King’s language and the virtuosity of his delivery. To touch the hearts of Americans, he harnessed the power of many forms of artistic expression: rhetoric, literature and poetry, hymns and sacred songs. From the hundreds of thousands of listeners gathered that day at the Lincoln Memorial,great waves of applause followed his every ringing line. In the midst of the speech, he summarized his dream in termsthat are apt for an orchestral concert: that one day “all God’s children will be able to sing” in a “beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”


– Christopher Wilkins

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