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January 20, 2009

Inaugural premiere resonates with Copland

Just before the new president was sworn in today, four very cold musicians -- violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, clarinetist Anthony McGill, pianist Gabriela Montero -- offered the premiere of Air and Simple Gifts, composed for the occasion by John Williams. I can't vouch for how it sounded to the folks on the inaugural platform, or what kind of effect it had on the massive throngs stretching all the way to the Lincoln Memorial, or what sort of effect it made -- it couldn't have been easy for four little instruments to make a major statement under those circumstances. To tell the truth, I wondered for a bit if there was some play-syncing going on; the quartet recorded the music over the weekend as a backup, and the sound didn't seem entirely natural to me at the start. Still, on TV, the new work proved to be a reflective interlude ripe with resonances.

The "air" at the start of the roughly four-minute piece strikes a sober note, as if to recall the many challenges facing the country. The soft, slow, rather bittersweet theme, begun by the violin and soon picked up cello and piano, gives way to another, very familiar melody from the clarinet -- the gently uplifting Shaker hymn, "Simple Gifts," which was used so indelibly by Aaron Copland in his 1944 ballet score Appalachian Spring. Williams quotes that passage almost verbatim, and goes on to put the hymn tune through a very Coplandesque treatment before bringing the mood back down to earth with the opening material.

Although Williams chose to use the Copland material because President Obama counts that composer among his classical favorites, there's another significant point here. In 1953, a pre-inaugural concert by the National Symphony Orchestra at Constitution Hall, a concert attended by then president-elect Eisenhower, was to have included a performance of one of Copland's most popular works, A Lincoln Portrait. But a Republican congressman (from Illinois, by the way) objected, suggesting that Copland was too liberal and maybe even Communist-friendly, so the piece was pulled from the concert. Inserting the touch of Copland into the Obama inauguration, Williams told Variety last week, offers "a completed circle of events that is nice to think about." 


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:25 PM | | Comments (22)


Uha, Then I guess wish they had just played the Copland, a much better piece and one that makes the Williams not only a little trite but also unnecessary.

Copland would have been good but Williams puts the piece is greater context and better captures the mood of the country. I don't think it could have been better done.

As for Tim Smith's post regarding doubts of play-syncing, these are 4 of the top living musicians of our time. I highly doubt that happened. Besides, the instruments sounded as they should in that weather/temperature. I'm pretty sure it's real. Listen carefully to notes and you'll hear what I mean.

If it hadn't been for a certain artificial quality to the sound of Perlman's violin in his opening phrase (and the news reports of a stand-by recording), I would never have entertained any doubts. But it would be no big deal if there had been some electronic enhancement, of course. The musicians gave the new piece a great deal of care and expression.Tim

Thanks so much. You're the only place on the web I found where I could hear this piece again--and see it, too. Congrats!

I thought the piece was absolutely beautiful. The "Air" was a fitting sound to the challenges of our time, while making me think of the rural beauty of our country. "Simple Gifts" strikes me as a quintessentially American song, without the pomp of a patriotic march, expressing the hardworking and humble attitude we would like to see in ourselves and our president. It called to mind the busy lives of ordinary people, as well as harkening back to ideals of sexual and racial equality held by the Shakers, particularly resonant today. The artful intricacies throughout and especially during the transitions made me close my eyes to listen more closely. At an inauguration meant to be accessible to all the people, Williams' work was meaningful, beautiful and appreciable for everyone.

Thanks for your beautifully expressed comments.Tim

I thought it was a beautiful piece. Thanks for having it here where I can see it again.

Excitement and joy came through in the playing today - ready for a new era with a musical message that springs from this hopeful and meditative hymn. Like other adaptive musical standards, such as 12 bar blues, this hymn can live in beautiful, new forms beyond the Quaker household where I grew up singing it at worship.

Found the link to the music through Google - although I enjoyed the piece, I find it hard to characterize it as "composition" - it seemed more like "Theme & Variations on a Copland Theme." Although I haven't composed a note of music in my life, this piece seemed like veiled plagiarism. (And I should note that as much as I enjoy John Williams' music, I have found other themes in his work that have very obvious classical music inspirations). Not a knock as much as an observation....

I might have called it 'Theme and Variations on a Theme Famously Used by Copland.' I can appreciate what Williams was after -- something more about the event, the occasion, the resonance than about his own music. If he was aiming to strike a familiar, very American chord, I think we'd have to say he succeeded. Tim

I really liked the music. It was one of the best parts of the whole program. It was much more of a modern composition than would normally be shown on TV for such a widely viewed event. My hat is off to the PIC for this class act. It was rather daring of them to put it on. I don't remember what music if any was played at either of the Bush inaugurations.

Congratulations to all the musicians involved, and especially to John Willams, composer. The "air" reminded me very much of Raith Vaughan Williams' music in its understated delicacy. And the use of "Simple Gifts" was energetic without the bombast of Copeland. For me the music was one of the outstanding moments of an extraordinary inauguration day. Thank you so much for the posting.

Not sure if I would agree that Copland's treatment of the hymn is ever bombastic -- I'd say noble -- but thanks for the posting. (And a gentle reminder: no 'e' in Copland, and it's Ralph Vaughan Williams.)

John Williams should have just left it at Air. There are some nice things going on there that could have been developed and explored more. Simple Gifts seemed just tacked on and forced. If you are going to quote Simple Gifts in a theme and variation, why not just play Appalachian Spring. There's an homage and then there is being unoriginal. Unfortunately John Williams crossed over into unoriginal territory.


I was wondering about the sync too - but I thought the video matched too well to be synced.

Isn't it funny how this Shaker tune has come to represent "Americanness?" Are there any other bits of Shaker culture that we identify as quintessentially American? I personally think that Copland's responsible for mythologising that little bit of Americana.

Also, I wanted to point you and your readers to my boss's blog post on the inauguration. I work for Performance Today, and you can check out the post here:


Thanks for the comments and the link. I doubt the general public would know a note of that hymn had it not been for Copland. And yet, once heard, it seems to resonate somehow in our collective DNA, as if it were there all along. I think when people discover the words of that tune, they become even more sure that it's quintessentially American.Tim

Dear Mr. Smith, Thank you for the posting. Being able to see and hear the Williams work again was a joy. The quartet's artistry was a highlight of the day for me. Since you are plugged into the music world more than I, could you let your readers know if an .mp3 version of this work might be in the works? Thanks again.
Barbara Walters

I hadn't considered that they weren't actually playing live, but that's an interesting theory. While sitting in the warming tent and watching the performance I couldn't believe how Anthony McGill (not mention the others) could possibly be playing out there--1) his fingers must have been frozen and 2) either he played on a smaller clarinet or the strings were tuned way down! I heard that there may have been some kind of heating source up there for them but don't know if that was true or not. I could barely move my left hand during the parade.

Thanks for commenting. If they had a heating system up in that perch good enough to enable musicians to play so perfectly in 20 degrees, I'd sure like to get one for my house. Tim

Other comments about this composition seem to have missed the point: the renowned international musicians are trying to create music out of a pair of discordant themes, without having much success. Then a young African-American musician (from Chicago!) introduces a familiar melodic fragment --- quietly, with crystal clarity --- and Ma stops and stares at him in astonishment. The others quickly join in and build rapidly to a stunningly complex and harmonic conclusion. The symbolism of having an African-American from Chicago teach the world some simple American values and create unity and harmony out of chaos could not be any clearer, in my opinion. These particular musicians must have been very carefully chosen by Williams for this event.


An interesting perspective. Press reports indicate that Yo-Yo was most responsible for the personnel choices. I certainly think the mix of enthicities in that quartet sent an extra message on top of the actual music.Tim

The Williams piece was lovely, and the Copland references were unmistakable (I realize that "Simple Gifts" existed prior to "Appalachian Spring"). I also thought I heard fragmented phrases from Samuel Barber peeking through, as well. I need to re-listen to the Williams again, to confirm this.

I have a friend who was on the mall, and she said you could see 'heat waves' rising from the front. At first she thought it was a result of all those people, but then she thought perhaps there were heaters on the steps. Were the musicians sitting there during the entire event? Or did they come out a few minutes beforehand, remove their gloves, and start playing? Such questions to tease our brains while larger issues loom.

But more to the point, thanks for posting this historical backdrop for the music. I'd found the music on youtube and have been listening to it over and over. I've always been a fan of Simple Gifts. I was watching the inauguration with 5 and 6 year old kindergarten students, and even they could see the joy in the musicians as they played this piece. Wonderful!

Many thanks for writing.Tim

Thank you. Looked everywhere for this.

I stand corrected. Apparently It was indeed Ma who selected McGill, not Williams, and it was his incredible musical ability not his ethnic background which was the basis for the choice. Nonetheless, the serendipitous selection of someone from the South Side of Chicago who attended the same high school as Michelle Obama is definitely worthy of note. The healing message of the music itself remains clear and compelling.


Okay, yes, if film composer Hans Zimmer had written a trance-like one-note Batman-esque heroic theme, then by all means whinge.

But you classical elitists need to take a deep breath and stop clinging to absolutist purism. Williams hit all the notes with an appropriate, enjoyable, historically resonant, artful composition-slash-rearrangement.

Get over yourselves and just appreciate that chamber notes were played at all.

Well put.Tim

Daniel and Tim, it is always humorous to refresh the topic how much of a double-standard exists for living composers surrounding accusations of being derivative, or "unoriginal". This is a criticism that appears and disappears at the whim and taste of musicologists of all stripe--on and off teh intarwebs. If the "purists" really wanted a "pure" performance of either the Copland or the original hymn tune, the latter option would be extremely unlikely to be heard by anyone (unmiked voices, etc.) who wasn't standing immediately adjacent to the singers. I'm happy to give purists what they want, but sometimes they forget what the auditory/performance result would be.....

Alas, it was a fake.

Given the circumstances, the musicians didn't really have much of an option. To call it a fake is a bit harsh, though. Fake would have been miming to the performance of other players.Tim

From over here in Australia we have been listening to this many times and for us too, this music feels quintessentially American in the best sense. It speaks to us of hope, that we world citizens can once again appreciate what is dignified, and richly textured about America. But mostly, the choice of this music sends a message that the most loving and restrained and humble of human values might be a part of how a great power is exercised. That the musicians belong to the global community was a subtle message that reinforced for us that America might once again look outwards and might be perceived by the rest of the world as a brother or sister among nations. Many of us rose at 3am to watch the inauguration - your new day is equally a new day for us all.

Thanks for your beautifuly expressed comments. Tim

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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