Piece honors a life

Local composer drew from Martin Luther King’s words

Amid the deep thrumming of drums and swelling notes of brass instruments came the words of Martin Luther King Jr.

“There comes a time when people get tired; tired of being segregated and humiliated, tired of being kicked about by the brutal feet of oppression.”

As the notes faded Monday afternoon, Joseph C. Schwantner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer of the orchestral piece “New Morning for the World: Daybreak of Freedom,” clicked off the recording.

Racial justice, equality, brotherhood and non-violence are themes in the words Schwantner collected from among King’s lesser-known speeches, personal letters and writings and interspersed in the 25-minute piece, Schwantner told a group of Keene Rotary Club members on the holiday that marks King’s birthday.

As keynote speaker at the organization’s weekly luncheon, the Spofford composer discussed the piece, which was written in 1982 and first performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington on King’s birthday, Jan. 15, 1983.

A Baptist minister and civil rights leader who was assassinated outside an Memphis motel in 1968, King would have been 83 this year.

“We cannot walk alone. As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.”

Schwantner — who won the Pulitzer in 1979 and has served as a faculty member at The Juilliard School, Eastman School of Music and the Yale School of Music — began working on the piece featuring King’s words in 1982, spending a summer combing archives for texts he would eventually weave together with music.

The texts he drew from, including a speech to the Montgomery Improvement Association, a secret letter to clergy members while King was imprisoned, King’s famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial and an early version of his “I Have A Dream” speech, represent more than a decade of King’s writings.

“At the end of the day, it’s really about the words,” Schwantner told the more than two dozen people gathered at the Keene Country Club. “The music can help elaborate on the words, but it’s the words that will linger in our minds.”

Since it was composed, the piece has been performed more than 300 times around the world, Schwantner said.

“Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate alley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.”

The text by King has been narrated live during orchestral performances by well-known artists such as James Earl Jones, Maya Angelou and Danny Glover and by members of King’s family, including his daughter, Yolanda, and son, Martin.

But it was a performance in Indianapolis two decades ago that stands out most sharply in Schwantner’s mind, he told the audience.
At that performance, King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, narrated the texts.

She asked Schwantner, who attended rehearsals before the performance, to stand next to her during one of the rehearsals.

“Several times she leaned over and said, ‘I remember Martin saying these words,’ ” Schwantner said. “I remember thinking I’d never be closer to the source than that day.”

Scott King, who told Schwantner that her late husband would practice his speeches in front of a mirror to perfect his pauses and emphasis on words, performed the piece just once. She died in 2006.

Schwantner, who describes himself as a “child of the 1960s,” grew up in Chicago and moved to the Monadnock Region a decade ago, when he decided to stop teaching to focus on composing.

He’d been a fellow at Peterborough’s MacDowell Colony for artists and thought the region would foster his creativity and passion, he said.

Writing the King piece, he said, was his way of revisiting the turbulent history of America during that time, from the civil rights movement to the war in Vietnam.

Last week, the music was performed live in Atlanta, as part of events there honoring King’s life.

Schwantner said he’s proud that the music has reached such a wide audience — and with it, carried King’s message of peace and equality.

“… I know some of you are asking, ‘How long will it take?’ I come to say to you however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long because truth pressed to the earth will rise again. How long? Not long because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long because you will reap what you sow. How long? Not long because the arm of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

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