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march on washington

Birthday Symphony


 for Full Orchestra

Composed May 9, 2013--January 15, 2014; new last movememt, Aug. 29--Oct. 5, 2015
Duration: about 30 minutes                Photo above: March on Washington, 1963

    (See Birthday Quartet under Music for Mixed Chamber Ensembles for the chamber version, which has a recording from February 18, 2014.)

Score (PDF)    Parts (PDF)    Cover  

Video of the last movement's premiere performance by the Durham Symphony Orchestra, conducted by William Henry Curry, on January 16, 2016, at the Sounds of Justice & Inclusion concert, Duke University.   

      The MP3 recordings below and this video on YouTube are from the premiere of the entire symphony for full orchestra, performed by the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jim Waddelow on February 27, 2016 at Jones Auditorium, Meredith College, Raleigh NC.

I. How Long? Not Long      

      And they're off     [9:20]       MP3 recording  

II. Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi swaha          

      Adagio mahayana     [9:59]       MP3 recording  

III. Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Coming
    of the Lord  

      Picco di montagna    [9:11]         MP3 recording  

IV. August 28       

      Tempo I, II, III, IV, III     [10:09]       MP3 recording  

        In early 2010, I had a peculiar dream of a respectful conversation with Elvis Presley. He said I should write a symphony based on speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. Well—who can refuse the King of Rock and/or Roll? Especially since I share my birthday, January 15, with MLK, and classical radio stations frequently play a composer's music on his birthday.

        The speeches of Martin Luther King are copyrighted, and the MLK Center is notoriously litigious. Thus this cannot be a choral work, nor can it have direct references to texts in the score. Instead I use the rhythms and inflections from speeches that are incorporated in themes. The first movement uses a few phrases from the “How long? Not long” speech of March 25, 1965 at the Alabama State Capitol. The second movement is based on the Buddhist mantra “Gate gate, paragate, parasamgate, bhodi swaha”; this can be roughly translated (as by Ram Dass) as “Beyond, beyond the beyond, beyond the beyond the beyond, hail the goer.” The third movement returns to MLK and uses bits of the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech given on April 3, 1968 in Memphis Tennessee. The first version of the fourth movement (started writing it Aug. 28, 2013) used the final section of the Dream Speech given at the March on Washington on August 28, 1968, with narrator. This version can be performed after 2038 when the copyright lapses.

        On August 29, 2015, I started writing a second version of the last movement. The beginning uses the rhythm of the words “And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” The music then departs from the text, with the motives from “table of brotherhood” and “I have a dream” used repeatedly. Next comes “Let freedom ring” along with other phrases from the speech. The movement closes with “Free at last, free at last (repeated), thank God almighty we are free at last!”

        The premiere performance of this piece was of the chamber edition for violin, clarinet, cello and piano on February 18, 2014, with the original fourth movement, without narrator. (There is also a version for piano quartet.)

        This orchestral version was first performed by the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jim Waddleow, on February 26 and 27, 2016, at Meredith College, Raleigh NC. The last movement was premiered by the Durham Symphony Orchestra on January 16, 2016, conducted by William Henry Curry.


Classical Voice of NC review  reprinted below.

At a Loss for Words: RSO Premieres Symphony by Bill Robinson

By John W. Lambert

February 27, 2016 Raleigh,NC  


        As orchestras with the resources to be strong advocates for new music slip further and further into museum/mausoleum modes, their marketing departments dictating artistic policy and their box offices driving programming, smaller-budget operations are stepping up to fill the resulting voids in our cultural fabric. Thus the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra's Jones Auditorium premiere of Bill Robinson's Birthday Symphony (which title encompasses Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday and the composer's own) may prove to be, in retrospect, the region's most significant nod in the direction of new contemporary fare this season. And in addition, the final movement of the work had been played just a month ago at Duke University by another community orchestra, the Durham Symphony. So things are definitely looking up for important new music – as rendered in Raleigh and in Durham, too, by the mainstays of our culture, our community orchestras.

        And certainly, no orchestra in these parts other than the RSO is premiering this season a major work like this, one to which the ensemble devoted parts of two back-to-back concerts, including the entire first half of its latest "Rising Stars" program, that title referring to winners of its annual concerto competition, heard in the second half – winners which, come to think of it, no significantly larger orchestral ensemble (of "regional" or larger status) would bother to feature, probably out of fear of alienating prospective paying subscribers…. (The RSO concert the night before featured winners of Meredith College's own concerto/aria -­competition alongside the Robinson score.) The new work is important in its own right, too, despite a major caveat, that being the prohibition by the MLK Center of any use whatsoever of what it views as proprietary speeches and remarks by King. As Robinson notes, copyright on "I have a dream" doesn't expire till 2038. Instead of using the words, Robinson has used rhythms – the rhythms of King's speech patterns in the Birmingham speech "How Long? Not Long" of March 25, 1965, of the Memphis speech "I've been to the mountaintop" of April 3, 1968, and of the Washington speech "I have a dream" of August 28, 1963. Listeners familiar with those speeches will easily recognize the rhythms, the cadences, the pauses of the originals, either remembered or from the transcripts thereof that have eluded copyright control…. (The third movement, titled "Gate gate, paragate…" is, as the composer writes, "based on [a] Buddhist mantra" that, it seems to this listener, is totally in keeping with MLK's theological and philosophical point of view.)

        Admirers of Robinson's music may prepare themselves for future performances by reading these remarks – and surely there will be more, for this is indeed a major contribution to the orchestral literature.

        In Raleigh, on the occasion of this second of two consecutive performances, the RSO was in exceptionally good form, its winds and brass resplendent, its strings rich, full, and admirably unified, its percussion (and especially its timpanist) spot-on in providing the heartbeats of life that permeate this symphony. Music director and conductor Jim Waddelow deserves credit not only for his innovative programming but also for the consistently admirable playing he encouraged from the members of this wonderful orchestra.

        The music itself is readily accessible. If some of it suggests Copland or Hanson (who was in turn influenced by the Scandinavians) then the positive side of that coin is that the new symphony is solidly in the mainstream of our strongest (American) orchestral traditions. There's mood and emotion appropriate to the varied subjects. There are melodies that linger in the mind when the music ends. And Robinson absolutely knows the ropes in terms of instrumentation and orchestration. With luck there will be more opportunities to hear this music, going forward. But for now, there are two immediate options. The Duke performance of the last movement (by the DSO) is online here (in which the Robinson selection begins at 12:31). And the chamber edition of the symphony may be heard here. Check 'em out.

        You won't be disappointed!