Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Confluence of Inaugural Musical Events

Like many of you, Joy and I watched yesterday's inaugural events with a profound sense of the moment's history. But there were some associations that the event triggered in my mind that I knew would not be in most minds. As Yo-Yo Ma on cello, Itzhak Perlman on violin, Gabriela Montero on piano, and Anthony McGill on clarinet performed John Williams's "Air and Simple Gifts," my mind flashed with associations of past inaugurals.

New compositions and inaugurations have a twisted history. Just think back to Richard Nixon's second inauguration, when Vincent Persichetti was commissioned by the Inaugural Committee to write a work for the Inaugural Concert on January 19, 1973. Persichetti carefully chose excerpts from Abraham Lincoln's second Inaugural Address and set them in a work titled "A Lincoln Address." Sounds safe enough. The problem? Persichetti included Lincoln's description of the Civil War as a ''mighty scourge,'' words that the Inaugural Committee felt would be applied to the Vietnam War if the work was played. Out goes "A Lincoln Address" from its scheduled premiere. It wasn't played until the end of that month when the St. Louis Symphony performed it.

That bit of history flashed into my head because of Obama's use of the Lincoln Bible, but Williams's obvious homage to the greatest use of the tune "Simple Gifts" brought an even more pivotal moment to mind. Passages of "Air and Simple Gifts" echoed Aaron Copland's use of the tune in Appalachian Spring, and Copland himself had an awkward history with inaugurations and Lincoln. In early 1953, Copland's A Lincoln Portrait, which also set words from our 16th president, was slated for Eisenhower's Inaugural Concert. But two days before the concert, Congressman Fred Busbey of Illinois successfully lobbied to have the work removed from the concert because, as he said, "The Republican Party would have been ridiculed from one end of the United States to the other if Copland's music had been played at the inaugural of a president elected to fight Communism." That's right, fear that Copland was a Communist (charges he was cleared of in May of that year) led to the removal of a piece celebrating America's freedoms.

With Obama having that a piece played with those overtones at an Inaugural that so prominently featured Lincoln gave me as much hope for our country as anything else. And so, for your enjoyment, here is a short clip of our new president delivering the narration for Copland's Lincoln Portrait:

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