January 15 is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This year we’re remembering Dr. King by turning to composer Alice Parker’s tribute, A Sermon From the Mountain.
This work for chorus, solo baritone, strings, guitar, percussion, and organ takes a six-movement form. Composer Alice Parker writes:
A Sermon From the Mountain is a tribute to the slain leader of the non-violent movement in this country. It was commissioned in April, 1968 [just days after King’s assassination], by the Franconia Mennonite Chorus, Hiram Hershey, Conductor, and first performed by them on April 13, 1969. There were two main sources of inspiration for its writing: first, the Biblical verses often quoted by Dr. King as the basis for his beliefs, and the Spirituals which so often uniquely illuminate and apply the texts.
My sources for the Biblical texts are Dr. King’s sermons, articles (notably Letter from Birmingham Jail), and books. Central to an understanding of the man and his mission must be the realization that he took the Sermon on the Mount with complete, terrifying literalness. The basis of the non-violent movement was to “return good for evil. Christ showed us the way, and Mahatma Gandhi showed us it could work.” Also, “returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.” And again, “Non-violence is a powerful and just weapon. It is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.”
The healing sword was wielded by a musically gifted people. “We did not hesitate to call our movement an army. But it was a special army, with no supplies but its sincerity, no uniform but its determination, no currency but its conscience. It was an army that would move but not maul. It was an army that would sing but not slay…In a sense, the freedom songs are the soul of the movement. They are more than just incantations of clever phrases designed to invigorate a campaign; they are as old as the history of the Negro in America. They are adaptations of the songs the slaves sang…the sorrow songs, the shouts for joy, the battle hymns and the anthems of our movement. I have heard people talk of their beat and rhythm, but we in the movement are so inspired by their words…These songs bind us together, give us courage together, help us march together.”
The Sermon is cast in the form of a church service with a leader who intones the sonorous Biblical texts, and a congregation, complete with its own soloists, which responds melodically, rhythmically and emotionally to his preaching. The role of the leader in the complete musical setting is divided between a speaker, who reads from Dr. King’s sermons, and a baritone soloist, who sings the Biblical texts to original music accompanied by string orchestra. The part of the baritone soloist may be assumed by the speaker, in which instance the Biblical texts as well as the quotations from Dr. King’s speeches are read by him, the chorus singing in response.
Recent performances of this work have been put on by Washington University in St. Louis, Newark Symphony Orchestra, and the College of DuPage, among many community organizations and churches.