Sing Out Mr. President: FDR's Fight Against Fear

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." —Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Franklin Delano Roosevelt i i

hide captionFranklin D. Roosevelt steered the nation through one of its most troublesome periods.

Getty Images
Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Franklin D. Roosevelt steered the nation through one of its most troublesome periods.

Getty Images

Throughout February, hear new works by contemporary composers based on words of 16 American presidents, in recordings by conductor Judith Clurman and Essential Voices USA. Today, Samuel Adler puts the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to music.

The economic circumstances when Franklin D. Roosevelt, our 32nd president, took office in early 1933 could not have been much worse. The Great Depression ravaged the nation, leaving 15 million unemployed, banks closed, farms on the auction block and millions homeless.

To combat the misery, the president deployed an arsenal of optimism, "a call to arms." Roosevelt gave people hope in his fireside chats and faith in his New Deal programs. Within his first inaugural address, on March 4, 1933, he delivered what is now one of the most iconic presidential phrases in history:

This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.

Many of FDR's programs had already bolstered the battered economy by 1939, when 11-year-old Samuel Adler and his family fled Germany for the U.S. Adler followed his father into music, studying with Aaron Copland and Paul Hindemith at Harvard, and eventually became a composer, conductor and professor of composition at the Juilliard School.

That's where Adler met choral director Judith Clurman, the creator of the Mr. President project, and the one who asked Adler to set FDR's famous words to music. Adler, now 82, says he owes a lot to Roosevelt.

"We came to this country in 1939, and the first president I knew of was FDR," Adler says "He was there for four terms, so I had many occasions to listen to his fireside chats. I always felt that he was our savior who brought us to the United States."

Unlike Adler, the members of the Essential Voices USA choir, who sing his presidential song "Admonition of FDR" (at the top of this page), do not remember the famed president. So Clurman had to establish a little historical context.

"The majority of people singing on this project are in their twenties," Clurman says. "They didn't just learn about presidents from me, but we talked about American history, and I gave them some imagery and ideas. They began singing the word 'fear' in a very fearful way by the time we were done with the recording."

Adler says that if he hadn't become a composer, he would have become a historian. He was inspired not only by the significance of the text but also when it was spoken.

Samuel Adler i i

hide captionComposer Samuel Adler says if he hadn't become a composer, he would have become a historian.

courtesy of the artist
Samuel Adler

Composer Samuel Adler says if he hadn't become a composer, he would have become a historian.

courtesy of the artist

"[FDR] said it better than anybody could, and the context was so powerful, because we were in a worse situation than we are in this decline of our economy," Adler says. "The idea is that fear is the destructive thing in our lives, and I hope I made that clear in the emphasis on the words."

And those words and the way Roosevelt intoned them kept ringing, and eventually singing, in Adler's head.

"FDR used English in the most proper and elevating fashion," Adler says. "I don't think that one text is more musical than another. It was just very meaningful to me, and I can set any text that means something to me. It isn't the musicality of it.

"For instance, it's very difficult sometimes to set poetry that rhymes and has a regular meter, because that becomes doggerel, and you have to be careful not to do that. So the musicality of it is not the important thing, the important thing is the meaning."

Roosevelt's iconic text is short — not exactly easy to set, but part of Adler's assignment from Clurman was to transform the phrase into a canon, or round.

"It's not a canon according to the old rules," Adler admits. "There are some things that Bach or Haydn would frown at, but it's a canon in the original sense, meaning that you can repeat it over and over again, with people coming in at different times. It's the spirit of the round."


About The Composer

Samuel Adler was born to a Jewish family in Mannheim, Germany, the son of Hugo Chaim Adler, a cantor, and Selma Adler. The family fled to the United States in 1939, and Sam followed his father into the music profession, earning degrees from Boston University and Harvard University. He has composed and published a very extensive music catalog. Adler has taught at the Eastman School of Music and the Juilliard School.

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