“Mr. President”: Words That Will Live On

Centennial Exposition of American Presidents, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

In recognition of President’s Day, I thought I would join NPR’s classical music blog, Deceptive Cadence, in highlighting the newly recorded choral cycle, Mr. President, commissioned in 2004 by Judith Clurman (renowned choral conductor and NPR’s Artist in Residence for the month of February). The cycle consists of 13 choral settings of quotations from various US presidents, and Clurman asked a different composer to set each quotation. The composers comprise a diverse group, from 29 year-old Nico Muhly to the late Milton Babbitt. Clurman assigned specific quotations to each composer except for Babbitt, who insisted on setting words by James Madison for various personal reasons, including the fact that the Music Division of the Library of Congress is located in the Madison Building.

Mr. President premiered at the Library of Congress’s Coolidge Auditorium in October of 2004 in a special concert entitled “Mr. President: A Celebration of the Presidency”. In addition to the world premiere of Clurman’s commission, the program also featured songs by Berlin, Gershwin, Bernstein, and more, some written about specific presidents and others relating to American patriotism. Of the songs that were performed in the 2004 concert, the Library’s Performing Arts Encyclopedia provides digitized sheet music for J.W. Turner’s “The President’s Hymn” and H.P. Danks’s “The Boys in Blue Will See It Through”. The first half of the concert closed with Woody Guthrie’s famous folk song, “This Land Is Your Land”.

NPR’s Deceptive Cadence blog has been releasing recordings of each song in the Mr. President cycle over the past couple of weeks, so take some time to go to the site, listen to the cycle, and consider these modern musical settings of the words and legacies America’s presidents left for us and future generations.

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