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.