The legacy of George Washinton looms large in our nation’s history, having made a mark in almost every realm from politics to pop culture. In the arts, too, composers have frequently been inspired by the life and character of this multifaceted figure. To celebrate the February birthday of Washington, here are four classical pieces that honor the “father of our country”:
1. Michael Daugherty: “George Washington” from Mount Rushmore
Perhaps best known for his quirky pieces that riff on American pop culture, Michael Daugherty has also composed works of a more serious character. One example is his 2010 oratorio for chorus and orchestra—Mount Rushmore—which takes inspiration from the eponymous monument in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The opening movement (of four total—one for each president carved into the mountainside) spotlights George Washington. Quotations from “Yankee Doodle” and the popular Revolutionary War anthem “Chester” (sung in an ebullient shape-note style) are juxtaposed with a tender choral reflection on words of Washington himself.
2. Charles Ives: “Washington’s Birthday” from Holidays Symphony
The name “Charles Ives” immediately conjures up associations of America, particularly an old-timey, home-spun brand of Americana that has largely become lost to history. His massive Holidays Symphony is a case in point—a vivid (and often overwhelming) kaleidoscope of memories from the composer’s New England childhood. The first movement, titled “Washington’s Birthday,” opens with a bitter and dissonant snowstorm followed by a jubilant barn dance. (Listen for the jaw harp and the amateur dance band that occasionally “trips” over their music.) At the movement’s end, a lone fiddler continues to play his merry tune as the partygoers exit—to the tune “Good Night Ladies”—into the freezing winter night.
3. William Schuman: George Washington Bridge
Not to be confused with the Schumanns Clara and Robert, William Schuman was one of the most acclaimed American composers of the twentieth century, winning the first Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1943 and serving as president of both Juilliard and Lincoln Center. His George Washington Bridge—written for concert band—premiered at Interlochen Music Camp in 1950 and offers a towering portrait of the structure that connects Manhattan to New Jersey. Regarding the contrasting sections of the piece, Schuman states his intentions in a program note:
Ever since my student days when I watched the progress of its construction, this bridge has had for me an almost human personality, and this personality is astonishingly varied, assuming different moods depending on the time of day or night, the weather, the traffic and, of course, my own mood as I pass by.
4. John Adams: “Cheers” from Nixon in China
Though John Adams’s 1987 opera Nixon in China fixates on another U.S. president—specifically (as the title suggests) Richard Nixon and his February 1972 visit to China—it features a brief and humorous nod to our nation’s founding father. In the breathtaking banquet scene at the end of Act I, both the American and Chinese dignitaries toast a successful start to the American visit. Amidst the hubbub (and increasing tipsiness), Pat Nixon suddenly interjects: “Have you forgotten Washington?” The guests realize the date—February 21—and honor this observation with a delightfully repetitive earworm before returning to their toasts. (This moment occurs at 6:32 in the video below.)
Bonus: “One Last Time” from Hamilton
While not a classical selection, who can resist George Washington’s soul-stirring farewell from the second act of Hamilton? Grab your tissues…