Top Five Works About American Presidents

Tune in Monday on WQXR for Presidential Works, including 'Lincoln Portrait' at 8 pm

Thursday, February 17, 2011

It’s unfortunate to think that Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays were conflated into one Presidents’ Day, but on the other hand, it does give an excuse to celebrate all America’s leaders. Lately, those leaders have been subjects of recent musical works. From the opera stage to the concert hall, here are the top five works about the President.

1. Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait sets the precedent for Presidential music. Narration cobbled from Abraham Lincoln’s quotes is accompanied by an austere orchestration. The sobering work served as a galvanizing statement when Copland premiered it in 1942, five months after Pearl Harbor was bombed, and embodies what Americans expect from the president.

2. Nixon is probably not included in pantheon of great American Presidents, but his 1972 trip to China is one of the great diplomatic journeys for the commander-in-chief. It’s chronicled in John Adams's heralded opera, Nixon in China. The opera received its Metropolitan premiere to much fanfare this season and spurred a number of reflections on that trip from 39 reporters and diplomats.

3. Steven Stucky’s August 4, 1964 peers into the Lyndon B. Johnson White House on a day that marked pivotal points in both the Vietnam quagmire and the civil rights movement. With the specter of John F. Kennedy’s assassination still lingering, LBJ must simultaneously confront his secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, who brings news of an attack on American warships, and the mothers of two civil rights activists who were killed.

4. The fruits of Judith Clurman’s Mr. President project are being unveiled at this moment. Clurman, a conductor and teacher, commissioned 16 composers to each write a 90-second song for the commander-in-chief of his or her choice. The pieces vary from Samuel Adler's take on FDR to Milton Babbitt’s dedication to James Madison.

5. It’s considered more a Broadway musical—one that lasted barely a week on the Great White Way—but Leonard Bernstein’s 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue makes quite an musical impression, even if the book never had many admirers. The Collegiate Chorale extracted the score to perform what it called a White House Cantata in 2008, the year of Bernstein’s 90th birthday. Well before then, the musical’s most famous song “Take Care of this House” had a life outside the ill-fated musical. It was even sung at Jimmy Carter’s inauguration.

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Comments [8]

Les Bernstein from Miami, Florida

Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra peformed Morton Gould's "Lincoln Legend" on their concert of 1 November 1942. It's been ignored for lo these many years, no doubt because of the justifiable "hit" of Copland's "A Lincoln Portrait". The Gould work seems to be an orchestral equivalent of what fate decreed for Leoncavallo's "La Boheme" compared to Puccini's. Enterprising conductors and radio station program directors may reverse the fate of "Lincoln Legend" which I don't think deserves obscurity.

Feb. 18 2013 06:17 AM
Michael Meltzer

If you dig around, you can probably find a clip of Harry Truman sitting at his upright piano playing the "Missouri Waltz." He had appeared in newsreels doing that on more than one occasion.
Note to the WQXR author of "conflated:" Eschew obfuscation!

Feb. 21 2011 09:39 PM

AH....BUT....''Stars & Stripes Forever'' is included on ''Peaches & Cream'' and its quite a rousing version to boot! (Sousa is fine for ANY American celebration)

Feb. 21 2011 02:38 PM
Tom Miller from 309 Station Avenue, Indiana, Pa 15701

David Amram's "A Little Rebellion, Now and Then" lacks a commercial recording, but a copy of a live presentation at the Kennedy Center must exist somewhere - I heard parts of it on late night radio over ten years ago. It's obviously an offspring of Copland's "Lincoln Portrait" but the text and E.G. Marshall's deadpan recitation offers a humorous sampling of TJ's legacy. The music is jazz flavored and derivative (Carlos Chavez ?) but I'm still reserving a place on my shelves for it.

Feb. 21 2011 11:31 AM
Barry Owen Furrer

Perhaps "Hail To The Chief" needs to be mentioned as it's been around since 1810 and used unofficially and officially since 1954 for The President of The United States. When John Philip Sousa was director of the U.S. Marine Band, he replaced "Hail" with his own composition "Presidential Polonaise" in 1886 at the request of then President Chester Arthur when he learned from Sousa that "Hail" was an old Scottish boating song. While SOUSABOY won't get his wish of an hour of Sousa marches on WQXR, perhaps the programming director will dust off the old Kunzel/Cincinnati "Peaches & Cream" CD and play Sousa's "Presidential Polonaise" as I doubt they have the Marine Band recording in their library.

Feb. 20 2011 11:54 PM
David from Flushing

How about "Happy Birthday Mr. President" sung by Marilyn Monroe in that dress?

Feb. 20 2011 11:56 AM

How about 1 hour of Sousa marches?

Feb. 19 2011 10:43 AM
Michael Meltzer

Most of us probably agree with the editorial commentary implicit in your opening sentence, but editorial commentary is still inappropriate for a public radio station. Your writer may not be aware that in the eleven original states of the Confederacy, there never was such a holiday as Lincoln's Birthday, and it was never allowed to become a federal holiday. In New York and others, it was a state holiday only.

Feb. 19 2011 06:15 AM

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