It's not every day that an evening-length oratorio is premiered. But when the Dallas Symphony Orchestra arrives at Carnegie Hall on May 11, it will bring August 4, 1964, a 2008 work by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Steven Stucky and librettist Gene Scheer that is ambitious in every sense of the word.
Premiered on September 18, 2008 by the DSO, August 4, 1964 is a secular oratorio commissioned for the 100th anniversary of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s birth. The work centers on the day that two key issues in Johnson’s Presidency converged: the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement.
While researching LBJ in his presidential library in Austin, TX, librettist Scheer unearthed a remarkable historical coincidence: On the day the President and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara ordered the bombing of North Vietnam -- the Gulf of Tonkin incident -- the bodies of three slain civil rights workers (Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney) were discovered in Mississippi. The day was August 4, 1964. The events eventually led to congress declaring war on Vietnam, and also laid the groundwork for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Rather than creating a straightforward historical documentary, Scheer intertwined text from accounts from the activists' families, recorded phone calls of the president from the Oval Office, and various newspaper articles and speeches to depict the feeling of the nation as a piece of art. Four soloists portray key figures (the mother of James Chaney, the mother of Andrew Goodman, Defense Secretary McNamara, and President Johnson), supported by a Greek-style chorus and full orchestra.
The 70-minute work focuses on two themes — the tragic lament of the mothers of James Chaney and Andrew Goodman and the busy testosterone-infused chatter of the Oval Office — woven together with a quiet, spiritual setting of a poem by Stephen Spender. The opening scene dramatically juxtaposes grieving mothers with the hustle and bustle of men planning the attack. The opposing threads come together again during McNamara's lament, in which he contemplates the implications of sending men to war under false pretenses (the bombing was based on what were later learned to be inaccurate reports of attacks on U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin).
The New York premiere at Carnegie Hall will be special for more than just the orchestra. The families of Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, who were unable to attend the world premiere in Dallas, will hear the piece performed live for the first time at Spring for Music.