On the morning of inauguration day of Jan 20, 2009, gusty wind greeted more than one million people crammed in the National Mall. Only four persons, captured from the cameras of CNN, didn’t wear gloves.
As you may have successfully guessed, one of them was President Obama who kept his coolness throughout the ceremony. His decisive hand gesture was an integral part of his inspiring speech.
The other three are the three male performers of the quartet: Itzhak Perlman, the violinist, Yo-Yo Ma cellist and Anthony McGrill, clarinetist. It was a short piece of music, only around 6 or 7 minutes long. Nevertheless, I could see the wind blowing upto the stage where the musicians were. Looking at their faces, one can hardly notice the impact of temperature, ceremony or crowd. For them, at that moment, only music matters. It proves that besides the charismatic leadership, the discipline and passion of music also holds the power to overcome the temperature and other extremity.
The main melody of “Air and Simple Gifts” composed by John Williams is from an old Shaker hymn. It became wide known because of Arron Copland‘s “Appalachian Spring“. Copland’s choice of orchestration and tempo marks the most iconic American music: succinct in score and upswing and optimistic in mood.
In an earlier version of the same piece by John Williams, Alison Krause sings the original lyrics with Yo-Yo Ma, pious and melancholy. But in this special inauguration quartet composition, he slowly transitions the mood from cantabile sweet-sorrow to an uplifting allegretto, almost a verbatim quote of Aaron Copland.
It is impossible to imagine that John Williams may have known the inauguration speech by President Obama before he composed this piece, but the changing tone almost matches exactly the way Obama delivered his inspirational speech. The solos by string instruments are restrained and moody at the beginning but not too long the music digresses into a pomp with the unique combination of clarinet and piano, optimistic and fanfare-like, as if clapping loudly for Obama’s words a few minutes later: “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.“
The reference of Arron Copland reminds me Copland’s own composition for the inauguration ceremony of Eisenhower. Although “Lincoln Portrait” was withdrawn at the last moment because of the political reason, it still remains as Copland’s most performed piece. Perhaps there is no better timing than today that “Lincoln Portrait” should be performed for the inauguration of the first African American president in the United States. From the 16th to the 44th president, America has taken a long road to illustrate the essence of democracy.
PS: The beautiful piece of John Williams would sure enjoy a wide popularity following the inauguration. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is adding Air and Simple Gifts to its weekend concert program. The pianist Gabriela Montero in today’s quartet will join the orchestra playing George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”.