Each Sunday in January features a pair of symphonies, one from the "standard repertoire" of 18th and 19th century German works that we return to over and over, and one from the US, mainly from the 20th century. And for this weekend, with Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday on the 15th and the official observance on the 17th, Sunday the 16th seems like the perfect chance to continue this series of symphonies and celebrate the reverend's life and legacy at the same time.
The two symphonies for the morning are Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony and Copland's Symphony no. 3. Each is appropriate in its own way: after tearing away the work's original dedication to Napoleon, Beethoven replaced it with the words "...to the memory of a great man" (pictured above). Copland's Third Symphony, no less ambitious in its intentions, is the composer's grandest statement of his "populist" style. Let no one be cynical about this: Copland's embrace of tonality and accessibility did him no favors within the classical music establishment of the time. Like Beethoven, Copland was influenced by current political events. He took on a role as musical ambassador as a way of supporting FDR's policies both at home and abroad, and during WWII he sought out ways of writing music that would aid the war effort. He wrote "Fanfare for the Common Man" in 1942 and later incorporated it into the finale of this symphony, composed during the war's final months and premiered by - who else? - the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Serge Koussevitzky conducting, in October 1946. The fanfare has not lost any of its musical or symbolic power: it was heard at the beginning of last Wednesday's memorial service in Tucson.
In the first two hours we're going to hear a lot of singing. Coretta Scott King was a music major in college, a trained classical singer, and there was a lot of music in the King household. King's last words before he was shot was a request to hear the song "Take my hand, Precious Lord" at a mass he was planning on attending that evening. We will hear that song, as well as other spirituals sung by such singers as Paul Robeson, Roland Hayes and Marian Anderson.
We will also hear some versions of the ancient French marching song "L'homme arme." Why play a war song in honor of a man of peace? Because of the way Renaissance composers like Josquin des Prez treated the theme - using this martial melody as the basis for religious works was their way of turning swords into plowshares, a frequent image in Dr. King's sermons. It also provided a subtle way for composers to make a statement about the militarism of the church. This kind of double meaning was also used in spirituals, which under the guise of worship also provided a vehicle of protest against slavery. To hear the Agnus Dei from Josquin's Missa L'homme arme, with voices hypnotically weaving this marching song and the words "Dona nobis pacem" into a tapestry of peace that sounds uncannily like it could have been written by Arvo Pärt or Philip Glass, is to realize that music has been used as a means for visualizing peace and protesting injustice for centuries.