Remembering JFK (An American Elegy)
Related Artists/CompaniesPeter Lieberson
About the Work
Lieberson himself would evolve into one of America's preeminent composers. He won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for his Neruda Songs (2005), a song cycle written for his wife, the legendary mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. When the Boston Symphony performed Neruda Songs at the Kennedy Center in 2006, critic Tim Page called the score "one of the most extraordinarily affecting artistic gifts ever created by one lover for another."
The invitation to write a piece commemorating the Kennedy Inauguration, Lieberson says, came with unique challenges. He points both to the general one of composing music intended for a particular occasion and, in more technical terms, to the delicate balance required to weave spoken narration into an orchestral score. Moreover, the historical Kennedy's ideals and achievements have been inevitably colored by the iconic, even mythological position he holds in the American imagination. Yet as Lieberson read through Kennedy's collected speeches, he found himself increasingly inspired by their relevance. "I was astonished that so much of what he said carried presentiments of what we need today," remarks the composer, "a vision of what was possible for us as human beings who cohabit this planet."
Lieberson decided to present a multi-faceted portrait of Kennedy by choosing excerpts from three separate speeches, each of which focuses on a different angle. Remembering JFK (An American Elegy) presents these in chronological order. The first source is the speech about ethics that President-Elect Kennedy gave before the Massachusetts legislature on January 9, 1961, shortly before his inauguration. "In my view," Lieberson explains, "these ethics are not simply about personal behavior but have to do with basic intentionality with which one leads one's life." Few will fail to identify the second set of excerpts, which are taken from his Inaugural Address of January 20, 1961. As the single most-resonant speech JFK delivered, it set the tone and expectations for his entire administration. Lieberson's third source is the Commencement address Kennedy delivered at American University on June 10, 1963. In the aftermath of the previous fall's Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy focused here on the possibility of world peace.
Lieberson comments that his choice of the last speech in particular sheds light on Kennedy's realism as a counterweight to the idealism that inspired so many: "There is an elegiac quality surrounding this inspirational figure, since in the end he was not able to accomplish so much of what he wanted. But there was also a practical element in his understanding of human nature that couples with the visionary. I chose speeches that reflect both." The composer further adds that the piece's elegiac aspect, which is emphasized in his title and comes to the fore in the end, turns the mirror back on us. "To end on the reference to our mortality was meant not to highlight that Kennedy was assassinated six months later but that our time here on earth is so short—that our most basic common link is that we inhabit this planet."
Despite its popularity as a work of remembrance, Copland's Lincoln Portrait (1942) did not provide a model for Remembering JFK. "I find its structure puzzling," says Lieberson, "since the narrator comes in so relatively late in the piece." Instead, he looked to some of the precedents he recalled from his mother's performances as an actress. Lieberson recalls she would ask him to coach her as she rehearsed the speaker parts for such works as Stravinsky's melodrama Perséphone or Honegger's Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher.
Remembering JFK, which calls for a relatively standard-size orchestra, unfolds as a single movement. Lengthier passages of orchestral commentary separate the larger sets of speech excerpts. Woodwind and brass solos weave in and out, though the strings establish the predominant texture. The piece avoids flashiness, tending toward a plainer, simpler style of orchestration. Lieberson uses a descending motivic idea—declaimed at the outset by a solo trumpet—as the score's principal unifying device. Its melodic shape and rhythmic profile are easily recognized and readily transformed amid the piece's shifting harmonic contours.
The pace of variation intensifies in the section devoted to the Inaugural Address. After the famous exhortation ("Ask not"), the orchestra swells to a climax, followed by another excerpt from the speech that suggests a quiet coda. At this point, as cellos intone the principal theme, its origin is revealed to be in the flowing half-step and arpeggios of the fourth of Brahms's eleven Chorale Preludes (Op. 122) for organ—the last music he published.
Lieberson recalls discovering a copy of these pieces in a music store and playing them on piano. "When heard on the organ," the composer observes, "they're often played too fast or too religiously and are made to sound awful. I thought of orchestrating them but later discovered Virgil Thomson had already done that." Lieberson was inspired by the Brahms prelude to imagine a texture that could enhance the musical continuity between speaker and orchestra, allowing for a "seamless whole." By the time it emerges against the speech about world peace, it has been well prepared. At the same time, Lieberson's score emphasizes that the chorale setting is "one contrapuntal fabric" and should not obscure the other voices. Remembering JFK reaches a gentle close with this music, almost suggesting a lullaby, and comes to rest on a fading D major triad.
The Brahms source has an additional significance beyond the elegiac character associated with his late music. For his Op. 122, he used chorale tunes that implied the hymn settings from which they originated. In the case of the fourth chorale prelude, the hymn is known as Herzlich tut mich erfreuen ("My Heart Rejoices"): a simple, eight-line poem by Johann Walter that speaks of the promise of "eternal renewal" for the heavens and earth. "The poetry of the Lutheran chorale," says Lieberson, "also has an elegiac quality but at the same time conveys a sense of renewal and rebirth and of the possibilities of basic human goodness."
—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).