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Fanfare for the Inauguration of JFK

About the Work

Leonard Bernstein
Quick Look Composer: Leonard Bernstein
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Tzimon Barto, piano, plays Gershwin Jan. 22 - 24, 2011
© Thomas May
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) became a familiar face in the Kennedy White House, and two of his compositions bookend the administration: the very short Fanfare for the Inauguration, with its hopeful flourishes, and the somber, lengthy "Kaddish" Symphony. Bernstein was completing the latter when he learned of the President's assassination; he dedicated the score to "the beloved memory of John F. Kennedy."

The friendship between them in fact dates back to the mid-1950s. Bernstein became acquainted with Kennedy while they participated in a television documentary about life at Harvard. (Bernstein had graduated with the class of 1939, a year before Kennedy received his degree.) When the President-elect tasked Frank Sinatra with producing a gala to be held on January 19, 1961, the eve of the Inauguration, Bernstein was the obvious choice to represent classical music amid the dazzling mélange of stars lined up by Ol' Blue Eyes. These included Ethel Merman, Nat "King" Cole, Louis Prima, and Ella Fitzgerald, among many others.

Not even the notorious blizzard that had paralyzed the nation's capital earlier that day could keep the show from going on. (A rare, tantalizingly brief clip can be found on youtube.) Yet the extravagant lineup of entertainers was delayed for nearly two hours. John and Jacqueline Kennedy arrived after attending the National Symphony's Inaugural Concert at Constitution Hall. By the time the gala and an after-party were all over, Kennedy would have just a few hours left for sleep before the unrelenting schedule for Inauguration Day commenced.

To Bernstein fell the honor of launching the gala, which took place at the National Guard Armory, with his newly penned Fanfare. He arrived following a mini-odyssey that involved a police escort, with Bette Davis in tow, through the treacherous streets. Unable to reach his hotel to change to formal attire, Bernstein appeared onstage wearing an oversize shirt he had borrowed backstage. He conducted an ad hoc orchestra organized for the gala, also leading a memorable account of Sousa's "The Stars and Stripes Forever."

The Fanfare, in B-flat, is a tightly condensed burst of energy. Sid Ramin's orchestration mixes woodwinds, brass, and percussion. Following a brief flourish from percussion comes a unison statement of the two-part fanfare motif. The first part is a straightforward call to attention, while Bernstein jazzily syncopates the second for a recognizably American inflection of the fanfare rhetoric. In the opening call, Bernstein introduces the ambiguous tritone interval, a signature from his recent West Side Story score. The entire motif is then repeated, but stretched to a higher interval to increase the tension. Finally, the brass overlap in a third statement of the call, which ascends yet further to end on a blazing chord.

—Thomas May is a frequent contributor to the National Symphony program books. His books include The John Adams Reader and Decoding Wagner (both from Amadeus Press).