Listen: Music and the Kennedys

Thursday, November 03, 2016

President John F. Kennedy Greets Performers from American Ballet Theatre. (Stoughton, Cecil W. / Kennedy Library)

John F. Kennedy’s commitment to music and the arts was evident from the moment he took office. His inauguration featured two pieces composed for the occasion. One was as the first work ever commissioned for an inauguration ceremony, From Sea to Shining Sea by John La Montaine, and the other was Leonard Bernstein’s Fanfare for the Inauguration of JFK. Kennedy's musical ceremony was the start to what would be an equally musical presidency.

Kennedy, however, was neither a musician nor a music-lover. Although he took piano lessons as a child, one report in The New York Times observed, "Anybody studying the boy’s character when he was practicing scales would have said he’d never grow up to become president of the United States." He reportedly didn’t enjoy listening to music, and his social secretary had to work out a system of signaling the end of the concert by opening the door of the East Room ever so slightly, indicating to the president that it was time to applaud.

Even so, JFK had a deep respect for the arts and he believed that they were an important and defining aspect of American life. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy shared his commitment to spreading cultural acceptance and awareness of the arts, and she brought her own cultivated tastes to the White House. She was enthusiastic about bringing the finest artists and musicians to Washington, and to the American people. She nurtured relationships with musicians and major musical organizations, often personally inviting them to perform at the White House.

The Kennedys were not the first to present wonderful musical programs in the East Room, but they were the first to turn the White House into a public showcase for the performing arts. They were young, full of flair, knew how to throw great parties and they knew how to promote them. Not only did their programming include the best and most promising musicians, but their guest lists were often equally impressive. The East Room filled up with the greatest political, scientific and artistic minds, and press and music critics were invited to cover the Kennedys' events, bringing them to the American public.

The Kennedys also established close bonds with the most prominent American composers of the day, who relished the opportunity to gather in the East Room for dinner and music. When Pablo Casals made his second White House appearance in 1961 (his first having been for Theodore Roosevelt in 1904), among the 200 guests were some of America’s most prominent composers, including Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, Gian Carlo Menotti and Bernstein. In an account of the evening, Bernstein recalled the laughter, the marvelous food, the dancing and the delight of the composers, who were "so glad that they had been asked, feeling that they had finally been recognized as honored artists of the Republic. You know, I’ve never seen so many happy artists in my life."

When Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, the musicians and composers that he had championed during his presidency turned to music to express their appreciation and their grief. Orchestras around the world played memorial programs for him; Isaac Stern, Leonard Rose and Eugene Istomin played the slow movement from Schubert’s B-flat trio in a televised tribute to JFK; and the National Symphony played a midnight concert to an empty Constitution Hall in an intimate and deeply personal remembrance.

Some of the most enduring musical commemorations came in the form of compositions written to honor the life of JFK. Igor Stravinsky wrote a 12-tone Elegy for J.F.K., with a text by W.H. Auden. Herbert Howells penned Take Him, Earth, For Cherishing, and Donald MacInnis composed In Memoriam John F. Kennedy. And just as Bernstein celebrated the start of Kennedy’s presidency through music, so too, did he celebrate the end of Kennedy’s life by dedicating his third symphony to America’s 35th president.

Two months after the assassination of JFK, Congress designated the National Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., as a living memorial to Kennedy, and authorized its expansion into what is now called the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Nearly eight years after the assassination, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts opened its doors to the public with a gala performance featuring a Requiem mass by Bernstein.

Today, the Kennedy Center continues to honor JFK as a lifelong supporter and advocate of the arts by presenting great performers from around the world. Even the building itself is a celebration of his commitment to America’s cultural life. Inscribed on the wall just outside the grand foyer are words from a speech that Kennedy gave on behalf of the National Cultural Center before it bore his name: "I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit."

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Comments [3]

Bradly Baird

Merrin,

I hope that you will forgive my suggesting a correction to your news item. The opening gala piece composed by Leonard Bernstein was not a Requiem Mass, but rather it was a theater piece based on the catholic mass, which included not only settings from the ordinary mass for a large chorus, but also songs and dances for soloists as well as a kind of story around the celebrant who questions his faith along the way.

Nov. 06 2016 01:03 PM
Robby Bonfire from New York State

Always, just before national elections, fawning columns re "colorful" Democrats from the past come out, usually extolling the "virtues" of the Kennedy clan.

Nov. 05 2016 01:31 PM
Rosanna from NYC

JFK and Jacqueline Kennedy tried to promote the many positive aspects of cultural life, in contrast to most of today's politicians, who are crass egocentrics out to enrich themselves at the public's expense, and could care less about supporting the fine or performing arts.

Nov. 03 2016 09:43 PM

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