Leonard Bernstein was in a fix. The man he’d supported for the presidency of the United States was to be inagurated the next day, and he was to launch a gala celebration at the White House with his own newly composed fanfare. But Washington’s streets were nearly impassable, choked by a blizzard.
It took a police escort, but Bernstein made it to the White House. Under the circumstances, a side trip to his hotel for a change of clothes was out of the question, so on the evening of 19 January, 1961, Leonard Bernstein conducted without his tails. The best he could do was a borrowed, outsize dress shirt as he led an orchestra assembled from musicians who’d plowed their way through the daunting weather.
Not that a lack of formal wear was going to exclude Leonard Bernstein from the Kennedy White House. He and John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been friends for years. Both were Harvard graduates; they’d met while appearing in a mid-1950s television special about life at the school. Politically, Bernstein had deeply held progressive leanings, so backing Kennedy was natural for him. He was also close to first lady Jacqueline Kennedy.
Two years and 10 months later, Leonard Bernstein – with all Americans – recoiled in shock and horror as the news reached him: an assassin’s bullet had ended the dynamic young president’s life.
Two days after those harrowing events of 22 November 1963, Bernstein took to television’s CBS network to deliver a musical memorial to his friend. He led the New York Philharmonic in a work he’d recorded just that year – Gustav Mahler’s transcendent, transformative "Resurrection" Symphony.
Though Bernstein’s was the first classical music broadcast to honor to the nation’s fallen president, his was not the first such classical performance. That honor may fall to Erich Leinsdorf’s impromptu reading of the second movement – the funeral march – from Beethoven’s "Eroica" Symphony. On the 22nd, Leinsdorf’s podium announcement of that day’s tragic events – an announcement captured on tape – came as a shock to most of the audience.
Shortly after the assassination, plans began to take shape for a concert that would bring Americans and Canadians together in tribute to the president’s memory. The English composer Herbert Howells (1892 – 1983) was asked to contribute a choral work to the observance.
Howells labored on the piece for months, but by the Spring of 1964 he still hadn’t settled on a text. Finally, he revisited words he’d set in Medieval Latin – but hadn’t published – in 1932. The words had given him comfort in the months and years after his son’s death from polio in 1935. This time he used Prudentius’s Hymnus circa Exsequias Defuncti in an English translation by Helen Waddell: Take him, earth, for cherishing. The poem speaks of the transition from Earth to Paradise; Howells’s music follows, evolving from a simple unison to reach its summit in rich, brilliant harmony.
It’s one of those odd accidents of the calendar that in 2012 the anniversary of this unthinkable American tragedy coincides with a day when we as Americans give thanks for the plenty that’s been granted to us. At such a time perhaps it’s worth remembering the part that music plays in helping us through our darkest moments.
After all, at its core, music is organized sound. If we’re to bring order and peace to this disordered, violent world, the place to start is inside our own hearts, where music’s quiet rigor raises a bulwark against chaos. As Bernstein said the day after his 1963 memorial concert, "This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before."
From the German folk poetry collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn)
|O Röschen rot!||O little red rose!|
|Der Mensch liegt in größter Not!||Mankind lies in greatest need!|
|Der Mensch liegt in größter Pein!||Mankind lies in greatest pain!|
|Je lieber möcht’ ich im Himmel sein!||I would much rather be in Heaven!|
|Da kam ich auf einen breiten Weg;||Then I found myself on a broad path;|
|da kam ein Engelein und wollt’ mich abweisen.||Came then an angel who would divert me.|
|Ach nein! Ich ließ mich nicht abweisen!||No, no, I will not be diverted!|
|Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott!||I’m from God, and intend to return to God!|
|Der liebe Gott wird mir ein Lichtchen geben,||The loving God will grant me a small light,|
|wird leuchten mir bis in das ewig selig Leben!||will light me to blessed eternal life!||Translation: David Roden – Creative Commons 3.0 BY/NC/SA|
Baritone Thomas Hampson on the origins of Mahler’s Urlicht (Hampsong Foundation)
Erich Leinsdorf conducts the funeral march from Beethoven’s "Eroica", 22 Nov 1963 (WQXR)
Notes and text for Howells’s Take him, earth, for cherishing (St Paul Sunday Morning)
|Program note: WKSU will broadcast the Canton Symphony’s complete performance of Mahler’s Symphony #2 in c minor "Resurrection" this Sunday at 3:30pm.|