Sing Out Mr. President: JFK's Road To Progress

"The best road to progress is freedom's road." —John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy i i

Official presidential portrait of John F. Kennedy, by Aaron Shikler. Wikimedia Commons hide caption

itoggle caption Wikimedia Commons
John F. Kennedy

Official presidential portrait of John F. Kennedy, by Aaron Shikler.

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, Robert Beaser sets lesser-known words from John F. Kennedy to music.

It seems that almost all Americans 60 or older can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when they first heard President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.

Kennedy, a young and handsome president, embodied a fresh view of hope and progress for many Americans, and when he was gunned down in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, the nation took it hard.

Composer Robert Beaser knows exactly where he was. He was nine years old, hopping on a bus for an elementary school field trip.

"A number of the teachers started shrieking," Beaser recalls. "There was a general commotion and then the word got around that the president had been shot." Beaser spent that remarkable day in front of the television with his family. He also recalls writing a poem about the president's death.

So when choral conductor Judy Clurman, the creator of the Mr. President project, asked Beaser to set words from Kennedy to music, he jumped at the chance. The quotation, "The best road to progress is freedom's road," may not be Kennedy's most famous, but it resonated with Beaser.

"Kennedy was a great inspiration to all of us because he was a combination of great, soaring optimism and incredibly precise pragmatism," Beaser says. "And this quote embodied that. It was a very beautiful combination of flying and also just really telling us that this is what has to happen."

The phrase comes from a message Kennedy sent to Congress March 14, 1961, just two months into his presidency. One month later, he would find himself embroiled in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.

Another aspect of the quote that captured Beaser's attention is that its sentiment is a bit different from the usual advice about accomplishing goals.

Beaser says, "The normal admonition would be something like, 'If you want to get something done you have to keep your head down and work hard, and hard work pays off.' But it's the inversion. Because the best road to accomplishing something is actually freedom — which is the other way around. And it was the beautiful combination of those two items which gave me a clear concept of what I wanted to do."

What Beaser did sounds different from any other music composed for the Mr. President series. He strayed a little, Clurman says, from her original assignment to write a textbook canon or round.

"He just took off," she says. "It's a canon, and yet there are sections where it's just homophony and these really great gospel chords and the piece just jives. He really gets that sense of freedom in the piece, where people are wailing. Very different than the way Michael Gilbertson wrote Washington."

Beaser says that he had ideas for his piece, titled "Freedom's Road," almost immediately. "I kind of have a rule that if I don't respond to words within about 30 seconds of seeing them, there's no way I'm going to be able to set them," he says. "In this particular case, the combination of it being JFK and the words, within about ten seconds I had music running through my head."

After composing the song, it's easy for Beaser to play Monday-morning quarterback about his inspiration and process.

"I actually came up with a very gospel-y inflection because I wanted it to be more dynamic," he says, "and I wanted the piece to sort of soar and take off and have a little bit of an arc to it. So I decided to take that gospel bit and use it with imitative counterpoint throughout the piece, but also create a little bit more dynamic form, so it actually goes somewhere — which of course connotes the progress and the freedom."


About The Composer

Robert Beaser grew up in Newton, Mass., where he distinguished himself at a young age as a percussionist, composer and conductor. He is the youngest composer to win the Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome. Beaser has received numerous awards and commissions from orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony. He was appointed Professor and Chairman of the Composition Department at the Juilliard School in New York in 1993. Beaser has written for the Glimmerglass Opera, the New York City Opera, Musical Elements at the 92nd Street Y, the New York Concert Singers and the American Composer's Orchestra. Judith Clurman has recorded his works on New World Records. His works are published by Schott Music.

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