Exclusive

‘Classical music expresses the universality of human experience’ – composer Adolphus Hailstork

18 December 2020, 16:14

By Rosie Pentreath

The American composer talks to Classic FM about his powerful work, ‘Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed’, which honours the life of Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

“I believe classical music expresses the universality of human experience,” American composer Adolphus Hailstork says.

After a performance of his powerful orchestral piece, Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed by Chineke! Orchestra (watch above), Hailstork speaks exclusively to Classic FM, and reflects on the figures and histories the classical canon represents – and doesn’t.

Chineke! Orchestra performs Adolphus Hailstork’s ‘Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed’
Chineke! Orchestra performs Adolphus Hailstork’s ‘Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed’. Picture: Chris Christodoulou

“I believe that African Americans deserve to have the same homage paid to their suffering, and to their glories when they occur, as has happened throughout all of Western history.

“[The canon includes music] commissioned by a king, a prince or a pope, or for the opening of a cathedral, or for the funeral of a great person. So why not have pieces the same type of consideration to represent the history of African Americans in the United States?”

Hailstork’s own work commemorates and mourns the life of Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

Read more: ‘Classical music has a long way to go’ - clarinettist Anthony McGill performs powerful tribute to Black lives >

Chineke! Orchestra, conducted by Kalena Bovell
Chineke! Orchestra, conducted by Kalena Bovell. Picture: Chris Christodoulou

Hailstork describes Luther King as a hero. “I was in awe of his speaking ability, and the thrust of his arguments and his moral dignity. All of those things that make him a champion for many people.

“I started thinking about his work and him, and what a great tragedy it was that he was assassinated. And I wanted to write something fitting.”

This is Chineke!’s first performance of a piece from Hailstork’s impressive body of work, which blends music of African American and European traditions.
This is Chineke!’s first performance of a piece from Hailstork’s impressive body of work, which blends music of African American and European traditions. Picture: Chris Christodoulou

For Hailstork, ‘fitting’ for his piece Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed wouldn’t be flamboyant and brash, but rather noble and dignified like Luther King’s work.

“I wanted to try to capture the nobility of what he stood for. So the piece starts very quietly, and I had a picture in my mind of people gathering around the graveside.

“Through the music we can remember the great deeds he did, and the people lift their heads at the end and say that they’re determined to carry on – that’s what the piece means to me and what I tried to represent.”

Watch Chineke! Orchestra’s performance of Adolphus Hailstork’s Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed – plus works by Coleridge-Taylor, Dvořák and Haydn – on demand now at www.chineke.org.