"Above all, we must realize that no arsenal, or no weapon in the arsenals of the world, is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women." —Ronald Reagan
President Ronald Reagan 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, Jesse Wiener brings to life words from Ronald Reagan.
By the time Ronald Reagan took office as our 40th president in 1981, the Cold War was well over three decades old. But Reagan upped the ante with an aggressive new political blueprint that bore his name — the "Reagan Doctrine."
It was a strategy that sought to quell the Soviet Union's influence around the globe. The U.S. backed anti-communist factions and fighters — both publicly and secretly — in places like Angola, Afghanistan and Nicaragua, with the dual hope of diminishing communism and opening doors to democracy.
At the same time, Reagan advocated "peace through strength." While in office, he launched a massive buildup of U.S. troops and boosted military spending by 35 percent. Yet he and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev eventually signed a nuclear weapons treaty and set the foundation for the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks.
courtesy of the artist
Composer Jesse Wiener didn't stop composing until his piece was just right.
Composer Jesse Wiener didn't stop composing until his piece was just right. courtesy of the artist
With ideas about both weapons and peace in mind, even at the start of his presidency, Reagan told Americans in his 1981 inaugural address, "Above all, we must realize that no arsenal, or no weapon in the arsenals of the world, is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women."
The quote was part of an assignment handed to the young Broadway composer Jesse Wiener for the Mr. President project. His job: Transform the president's words into a song, structured as a canon or round. The act of composing was tough enough, but Wiener, who grew up in a liberal family, also had to face his ideological differences with his subject.
"I do tend to be sort of left-leaning," Wiener says, "but then I took a look at the words and I realized that it's really not about politics, and I think that's an important lesson. It's a universal message, and it's something that we forget about — the fact that each one has inside of us the ability to do the right thing, and that weapons can't stop that in the end."
Turning Reagan's quotation into a choral piece did not come easy. After more than two dozen draft versions, the composer and project creator Judith Clurman were finally happy.
"He did turn in 32 versions." Clurman admits. "We had a great time working on strong words, weak words and accents — because it was such a long text."
"I wouldn't say [the quote] lends itself extremely well to vocal music," Wiener says. "She kept saying 'verbs, verbs, verbs,' but then I looked at it and realized there's only one verb!"
Every version Wiener sent in Clurman liked, but it wasn't exactly what she was looking for. "I was giving him my gut reaction over and over again," she says.
Wiener says he eventually found the real heart of the quotation. "I was trying to convey the triumph of the words," he says, "and it took a while to actually get to that core."
"The end result is fabulous," Clurman says. "The word courage is so important, and they all sing 'courage' together at the end."
About The Composer
Jesse Wiener recently moved to New York City after graduating from Harvard in 2008 with a BA in music. Wiener has experience writing music for all media, having written choral, instrumental and vocal music for film, the concert hall, and the stage. As a guitarist and vocalist, he has appeared onstage with musicians such as Kate Taylor, Carly Simon, and Jim Belushi. Wiener's musical Our Guy was workshopped earlier this year at Pace University, a production for which he also served as music director. He also served as a production assistant in the music department of Rock of Ages on Broadway.