The Music of Presidents (A Century Ago)

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, November 5th, 5-6 pm:

The Star-Spangled Banner: Music (c.1773) by John Stafford Smith (1750-1836); words by Francis Scott Key (1779-1843)
Percy Grainger (1882-1961): Spoon River (1919)
Grainger: Mock Morris (1910)
Grainger: Youthful Rapture (1901)
Grainger: Irish Tune from County Derry (1902)
Grainger: Molly on the Shore (1907)
Grainger: Shepherd’s Hey (1908)
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924): La bohème, Mi chiamano Mimi … O soave fanciulla
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): Cello Concerto No. 2 in D, 2. Adagio, 3. Rondo (Allegro)

casals1917

Pablo Casals, 1917

Presidents, like everyone else, bring music into their lives according to their individual tastes, and the White House has witnessed the growing appropriation of music for home life and official functions. George Washington danced a minuet at his 1789 inaugural ball, and in 1801 the United States Marine Band played at the first public reception at the White House, for John Adams.

Thomas Jefferson heard the Marine Band play the popular tune “To Anacreon in Heaven” in 1806. That song would soon be fitted with new words by Francis Scott Key, inspired by an image from the War of 1812. The new song, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” was immediately popular, and was made official by the United States Navy in 1889. President Woodrow Wilson authorized its use for military occasions in 1916, and it finally became the national anthem in 1931, during the Hoover administration.

Wilson’s oldest daughter, Margaret Woodrow Wilson, was an accomplished soprano, singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a San Francisco world’s fair in 1915. She was First Lady of the White House after her mother died and before Wilson remarried in 1915. It was a family that loved music. We’ve already seen that the president asked Enrique Granados to play at the White House, and Percy Grainger also played a piano recital there in 1916.

The new technology of gramophone recordings had already by then entered the presidential quarters. In 1909, William Howard Taft was listening to records of Enrico Caruso on the brand-new Victrola he had installed in the Blue Room. For composers, his tastes ran from Wagner to Puccini, with La bohème becoming a particular favorite.

Working back to his predecessor Theodore Roosevelt, who was president from 1901 to 1909, we see an appearance by one of the greatest performers of the 20th century, Pablo Casals. He played for T.R. in 1904, and then 57 years later, for J.F.K. in 1961.

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