Music for America
Artists Pick Tunes to Inspire and Heal
Leon Fleisher | Leonard Slatkin | Beverly Sills | Billy Taylor |
Richard Jenkins | Judy Collins
By Susan Stamberg
In the late '70s, when American diplomats were held as hostages in Tehran, the Ayatollah Khomeini called for a ban, in Iran, on Western music. As host of All Things Considered, I urged the program to dedicate a piece of music by a Western composer to the Ayatollah. That night, we ended our broadcast by playing, uninterrupted, several minutes of a Bach Partita.
So many years later, music remains a powerful editorial, psychological, emotional statement. As a listener, as well as Morning Edition correspondent, I found myself feeling inundated by the daily wash of anxiety-making information we've been broadcasting since the Sept. 11 attacks. All this information is a necessary part of our jobs as journalists.
But it struck me that we have obligations beyond the daily conveyance of facts and analysis. And I asked myself how I, as a broadcaster, could add something different to the mix we were putting on the air. The answer came quickly and obviously. Especially as I noticed my own reactions, whenever a brief piece of music (we call them "buttons") ran between our various reports. Those 10 or 20 seconds of music created a resting place.
The music helped me clear my mind a bit, helped me prepare for what came next. So, as a listener, music was the answer to my question about the contribution I could make as a broadcaster. But I felt the music should run longer than 20 seconds. Why not a minute and a half, or two minutes, right in the middle of all that information? Take a break from talking, to communicate in a different way. And why not turn to the artists of our country, and ask them to help? Begin with musicians. Later, ask for suggestions from painters, novelists, actors, dancers.
Morning Edition producers liked the idea. We began on Friday morning, Oct. 19. Leon Fleisher, considered one of the greatest classical pianists of the last century, was my first guest. "Please," I asked him, "pick a piece of music that you'd like the country to be listening to right now." Fleisher's choice was the Ode to Joy from the last movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. It's music about the brotherhood of humankind, Fleisher said. It inspires heroism, and selflessness, and helps rearouse our commitments to ideals and principals.
I couldn't have hoped for a better beginning. And listeners agreed. A flood of e-mails came in, applauding Fleisher's choice, and thanking us for starting this occasional series. Listeners seem to welcome the respite of music, in the midst of the day's necessary news. One NPR producer said her four-year-old stopped, mid-tantrum, when she heard the Beethoven -- and began a smiling wriggle. Music indeed hath charms.
I've been covering the arts for three decades on NPR. But the tragedy of Sept. 11 and its aftermath have made me understand the arts in a new way. For me, art, music, drama, literature have always been a great escape -- a place to go to be away for a while. Now I see that escape is not the final goal. Art -- great art -- takes us away from the present, and engages, clears, airs our minds so that we can go back to our realities refreshed -- better able to do the ordinary and difficult tasks at hand. That's the role I hope Morning Edition's Music for America series will perform. A kind of clarity.
Read Stamberg's Sept. 20 essay on art as relief from reality.
Photo: Scott Suchman
Judy Collins, singer/songwriter
Hear Susan Stamberg's report for Morning Edition, Nov. 21, 2001.
Judy Collins, the famous singer/songwriter, selected Amazing Grace, a hymn she first recorded over 30 years ago, during the Vietnam War. Her version was recorded at St. Paul's Chapel at Columbia University. "People really needed some spiritually uplifting music and that happened to come at the right time and hit the right emotional chord as well as the right musical chord," she says.
Collins says she first heard the song when "I was just a very little girl." Her grandmother, from Chattanooga, Tenn., "grew up singing in choirs in church and she knew Amazing Grace and used to sing it. She was still alive when I recorded that song." It was "a wonderful thing to have her hear it... on the radio," Collins says.
Listen to Amazing Grace, from the Judy Collins album Forever: An Anthology (Wea/Elektra Entertainment).
Photo: Birgit Stoll
Richard Jenkins, pianist
Hear Susan Stamberg's report for Morning Edition, Nov. 13, 2001.
In a tuxedo at his piano near the lobby of New York's St. Regis Hotel, Richard Jenkins tries to match his music to the mood of the day. "On Sept. 11, there were a lot of guests who were stranded in New York," he says. "The hotel was full... so I played as if this was a safe haven and an island of serenity in a battlefield."
After President Bush addressed the nation immediately following the attacks, Jenkins says he began playing "more patriotic and 'up' songs because the speech gave everyone a boost... So then, when I played America the Beautiful, it felt right."
But Jenkins says his choice for listening these days is a song that captures his feelings about the city. "It's Autumn in New York," he says. Jenkins says he's especially fond of the lyrics, "particularly, the 'dreamers with empty hands' (and the) Central Park references."
"New York in the fall is like everyone coming back to school, but the students are from kindergarten to 90 years old," he says. "There's still that thrill of seeing your old friends and seeing new people coming in that you want to meet. And even now in light of the disaster, that feeling has come back."
Listen to Sarah Vaughan sing Autumn in New York, from American Popular Song (Smithsonian).
Read an NPR Jazz Profile of Sarah Vaughan.
Photo: Jimmy Katz, courtesy Creative Music Publicity
Billy Taylor, jazz pianist
Hear Susan Stamberg's report for Morning Edition, Nov. 8, 2001.
Billy Taylor is a jazz pianist, composer, arranger, conductor, educator, author and host of the NPR series Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center. He chose Blue in Green, a cut from Miles Davis' legendary 1959 album Kind of Blue. Critic Tom Moon called this "a kind of prayer music for the times when words no longer work," and Taylor agrees.
"Miles was not a virtuoso as many of the great jazz musicians are," Taylor says. "But he used his intellect and he used his experience and his feelings that he wanted to express in a very personal way, which is the epitome of what a good jazz musician does.
"This sound that Miles has... is one that I think is peculiarly American. Some of the sounds that he evokes on the trumpet come, in my view, in a straight line from the old spirituals, from the kind of early music created by African Americans that is a part of this country, that's like an American accent."
Listen to Blue in Green, from the album Kind of Blue (Columbia).
Browse the NPRJazz.org feature celebrating what would have been Davis' 75th birthday.
Listen as Tom Moon looks back at Kind of Blue, as part of the NPR 100 most important American musical works of the 20th century. On All Things Considered. Jan. 24, 2000.
Photo: Don Purdue
Beverly Sills, soprano
Hear Susan Stamberg's report for Morning Edition, Oct. 29, 2001.
Beverly Sills, one of the greatest sopranos of the 20th century and chairman of the board of the Lincoln Center in New York, had a hard time settling on a single selection. Her impulse was to pick Rossini's William Tell Overture. "I think anytime anybody hears the Lone Ranger music, it puts a smile on their face."
But Sills' real choice of must-listening for these times was the Casta Diva aria from Bellini's Norma. "The sheer beauty of that melody. I went and saw Norma the other night at the Met and a hush came over those five minutes that was not there for the rest of the opera. It's just a kind of music that you ride, it's like a magic carpet. You just sort of float along on it. And it's peaceful... just as peaceful as can be."
Listen to part of Casta Diva, performed by Jane Eaglen and conducted by Riccardo Muti (EMI).
Photo: Steve J. Sherman
Leonard Slatkin, conductor
Hear Susan Stamberg's report for Morning Edition, Oct. 25, 2001.
Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, was in London on Sept. 11, conducting a performance of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. One of the works he turned to immediately was a piece that has become the orchestral anthem of tragedy in America, Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings. On tour, Slatkin also revised his concerts to include the finale of Beethoven's 9th Symphony and Mahler's 2nd Symphony.
But when Morning Edition asked, he says, "I thought about what piece do I think reflects musically the sort of spirit that I would want to have in this time. I found myself turning to (Aaron) Copland's Appalachian Spring. The music is not overly complex, but it speaks of a simple time, a time that existed in the past and that we would wish would exist now and in the future. There is a feeling of Americanness to the piece, but at the same time it's not overly patriotic, it's certainly not militaristic, and I find great comfort in this particular piece at this time."
Listen to the closing moments of Appalachian Spring, as performed by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin conducting (EMI).
Listen to Slatkin discuss the changes made to the National Symphony Orchestra's fall debut concert at the Kennedy Center in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. On Weekend All Things Considered. Sept. 22, 2001.
Listen to Slatkin discuss the aftermath of Sept. 11 with the audience of a BBC Symphony Orchestra performance. On Weekend Edition Sunday. Sept. 16, 2001.
Photo: Peabody Institute
Leon Fleisher, classical pianist
Hear Susan Stamberg's report for Morning Edition, Oct. 19, 2001.
Leon Fleisher, 72, is considered one of the greatest classical pianists of the 20th Century. In 1965, he lost the use of his right hand due to a repetitive motion injury. Instead of giving up music, he began teaching, conducting and even played concerts featuring music written for just the left hand. Fleisher eventually regained the use of his hand and resumed playing two-handed works.
Fleisher said his musical choice should inspire heroism and selflessness. "Everybody on the planet, in one way or another, is searching for godliness and transcendence," he says. "It's purely a question of form rather than substance." Fleisher's choice: "Even though it's ubiquitous, to be found underlying rap songs and automobile commercials, it's the Ode to Joy. It's the ode to the brotherhood of man."
Listen to Ode to Joy, part of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, as performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, George Solti conducting, chorus directed by Margaret Hillis (London).