Sing Out Mr. President: Harry Truman Takes The Lead

"A leader has to lead, or otherwise he has no business in politics." —Harry Truman

Harry Truman i i

Harry S. Truman was thrust abruptly into the presidency during WWII — and his problems didn't end after the war. Wikimedia Commons hide caption

itoggle caption Wikimedia Commons
Harry Truman

Harry S. Truman was thrust abruptly into the presidency during WWII — and his problems didn't end after the war.

Wikimedia Commons

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, words from Harry S. Truman come alive in music by award-winning composer David Ludwig.

On April 12, 1945 Harry S. Truman told reporters, "I felt like the moon, the stars, and all of the planets had fallen on me."

And it's no wonder. That's the day America's beloved Franklin D. Roosevelt died, passing the presidency and the burdens of World War II along to Truman. But our 33rd president would have still more trying times ahead. After the war ended, there were economic and political troubles at home and the threat of communist aggression brewing abroad. One of the results was the Korean War, which began in 1950.

Although Truman was a proven leader — he had been a county judge, a U.S. senator and FDR's vice president — he was struck by the full weight of the presidency. Perhaps that is why he felt so strongly about the idea of leadership itself. His line "A leader has to lead, or otherwise he has no business in politics" almost comes off as defensive.

The quote struck composer David Ludwig, who set Truman's words to music for the Mr. President series, as deceptively simple.

"It sounds almost like a Yogi Berra-ism doesn't it?" Ludwig asks. "'A leader has to lead.' What strikes me as interesting about that is the tail of the quote, which is, 'otherwise he has no business in politics.' Maybe it reflected a certain frustration on [Truman's] part, because he wanted to lead and he had a lot of his policies shot down in Congress.

"But it's relevant to us today because as partisan as our own politics are now, I think everyone feels the need for strong leadership. That seems to be, for many people, the most important quality a president can have."

But do our leaders lead today? The larger concept of leadership raised its head when director Judith Clurman gathered her young choir to record Ludwig's piece. The quote, she says, turned out to be everyone's favorite.

"These are kids in their 20s and they are pretty negative about the political scene," Clurman says. She had to remind them that they would also be singing Bill Clinton's words: "There is nothing wrong with American that cannot be fixed by what is right with America."

"So I reminded the group of those words when they kept ripping into their congressmen and senators," Clurman says. "They were pretty negative. But the music is not negative. The music is beautiful."

Ludwig says the musical assignment he got from Clurman was simple: Write a short piece for choir based on this Truman quote and make it a canon — a melody that can mesh with itself when two singers begin at different times.

"A canon is a very simple ancient musical form," Ludwig explains. "'Row, Row, Row Your Boat' is probably best-known canon that we have. It was really fun to get the words both to fit into that musical form, and to be understandable."

Ludwig's song 'Truman' is a standard four-voice canon, focusing on the first part of the quote, 'A leader has to lead,' which is repeated over and over. The challenge, Ludwig says, is to get it to stop.

"You have to tie it up at the end, otherwise in theory it could go on and on, just like you could sing 'Row Row Row Your Boat' in the car for hours," Ludwig says. "So I did that with the second part of the statement, 'or otherwise he has no business in politics.' It's very simple on the surface, but a little more complicated underneath. And that's, to me at least, who Harry Truman was."


About The Composer

Composer David Ludwig has had performances in such venues in as Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and the Library of Congress. He has written for many prominent artists and ensembles, including soloists such as Jonathan Biss and Jaime Laredo, ensembles such as eighth blackbird and Network for New Music, and orchestras including the Minnesota and National symphonies. He has held residencies with organizations like Meet the Composer and the Isabella Gardner Museum, and with summer festivals including the Marlboro Music School, and the MacDowell and Yaddo artist colonies. He has won numerous awards and honors from nationally recognized arts organizations.

Born in Bucks County, P.A., Ludwig holds degrees from Oberlin, the Manhattan School of Music, Curtis and Juilliard, as well as a PhD from UPenn. He is on the composition faculty of the Curtis Institute, where he serves the Artistic Chair of Performance and as the director of the Curtis 20/21 Contemporary Music Ensemble.

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