This is to share information from the Elie Siegmeister Centennial files by conductor Leonard J. Lehrman. Composer Elie Siegmeister I HAVE A DREAM was originally commissioned by Cantor Solomon Mendelson at Temple Beth Sholom in Long Beach, Long Island. In the text adaptation by Edward Mabley, authorized by Dr. King, the scope of the speech is deliberately extended, so that the famous phrase “judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character” becomes “not by their color nor by their creed-but their character only shall they be judged.” The concept of the “exile in his own land” relates the Hebrew exile by the waters of Babylon to the desolation of Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” A blue fugue combines the lines “No man is an Island” and “We cannot walk alone.” The music too reflects the influence of folk, jazz, and synagogue chant. In a way, I Have A Dream was Elie’s bar mitzvah. Elie Siegmeister had never before, at least consciously, used synagogue chant in his work, but this time he studied it diligently, with Cantor Mendelson. And phrases from both Torah and Haftorah blessings found their way into the solo part of the cantata, especially in the quotations from Isaiah and the assertions of universal brotherhood and the prophetic imperative to struggle for justice (Later works drawing on his Jewish heritage included the operas after Malamud, Angel Levine and Lady of the Lake, premiered by Jewish Opera at the Y, and the String Quartet No. 3 “On Hebrew Themes” which the American Society for Jewish Music will revive June 7. 2009.)
“For the world premiere of I HAVE A DREAM with soloist William Warfield in Long Beach, April 16, 1967, a large group of celebrities, including Senators Jacob Javits and Robert Kennedy, and Dr. King were scheduled to attend. But 12 days earlier, on April 4, exactly a year before he would be assassinated, Dr. King gave his famous speech at Riverside Church, denouncing the Vietnam War. Immediately the American Legion threatened to picket the temple if he showed up, which he didn’t (though the John Birch Society, thinking he might, picketed anyway). Neither did most of the celebrities. Jackie Robinson, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee and Percy Sutton did. But the press stayed away, The work only really came into its own on January 15, 1989, when, in a joint celebration of Dr. King’s 60th birthday and Siegmeister’s 80 (born the same day), the Manhattan Philharmonic Chorus performed the Manhattan premiere with William Warfield at the Harlem School of the Arts, a performance that was broadcast repeatedly over WQXR and WBAI over the next several years. (The MPC revived it again in 2009 for performances in Great Neck, Huntington and Manhattan on January 4, 11, and 25.).