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WQXR Features

The Most Musical Presidents

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In this Feb. 10, 1945 file photo, Vice President Harry S. Truman plays the piano as actress Lauren Bacall lies on top of it during her appearance at the National Press Club canteen in Washington.

Elise K. Kirk, author of Music at the White House: A History of the American Spirit and Musical Highlights from the White House, says that the executive mansion is “the oldest performing arts venue in America.” Presidents throughout history have been deeply moved by classical music. Some were musicians themselves — John Adams played the flute, Woodrow Wilson sang and played the violin, Richard Nixon played the piano and Bill Clinton even had an entire music room in the White House for playing his saxophone. Others were devoted fans who couldn’t play a note or hum a tune.

On this first installment of the WQXR five-part series Music in the White House, Kirk identifies the most musically talented presidents of the 19th and 20th centuries: Thomas Jefferson and Harry Truman.

When Jefferson took office in 1801, he brought with him a deep love of classical music. In addition to playing the violin, he’d recently lived in Paris, a city brimming with glorious music that Washington simply wasn’t ready for. The city “was just cow paths,” and the White House was still unfinished. But Jefferson did what he could to fill his terms with music. He had a deep admiration for the United States Marine Band, an organization that he felt was important to the ceremonial history of the White House. He hired musicians from Italy to enhance and enlarge the band and he invited them to play at his inauguration, starting a tradition that continues today.

When Truman took office in 1945, Washington, D.C. had grown up considerably. Some of the great classical music had travelled across the Atlantic and this was reflected in the Truman’s music tastes. Truman studied the piano as a young boy, growing up on Mozart, Haydn, Liszt and Chopin. As president, he always had a piano by his desk and a radio by his bed, and he never passed a piano without playing a tune. He particularly loved Mozart’s A Major Sonata, which he played for an audience of 30 million Americans during the first televised tour of the White House in 1952, as well as during a conference in Potsdam with Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin and pianist Eugene List in attendance.

Despite his love of music, Truman’s White House was not as full of musicales and performances as he would have liked. When the leg of his daughter Margaret’s piano fell through the floor due to the wood having decayed over the years, it was clear that the White House required serious renovation. This sent the First Family to live off-site in a guest house for the majority of Truman’s presidency. Fortunately, the piano incident did not deter Margaret from her music studies. She went on to become a professional singer (and indeed the only opera singer that Truman could bear to listen to).

So it was that two of the most musically talented presidents had two of the least musical tenures in the White House. And by a funny twist of fate, two of the least musical presidents — Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy — presided over a White House absolutely full of classical music. We explore both of these presidents further in future episodes of Music in the White House.