Music for Washington’s Birthday

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.

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John Adams: “El Niño”

As a native Southern Californian, the phrase “El Niño” conjures up associations of rain—lots of it. However, as a classical music lover, it also brings to mind the title of John Adams’s marvelous Christmas oratorio.

You’re so close, Chris Farley! “El Niño” is actually Spanish for the Christ child.

Composed in the year 2000, El Niño is sort of a distant, twenty-first-century cousin of Handel’s Messiah. (I wrote about a twentieth-century equivalent last year, which you can check out here.) Adams’s music and text settings are amazingly eclectic. Here, old texts from the Gospels (both the traditional and the Apocrypha), Martin Luther, and the Wakefield Mystery Plays fit comfortably alongside contemporary poetry by Spanish, Mexican, and Latin American authors. The music is similarly wide-ranging, encompassing Gregorian chant and classical choruses to minimalism and bebop. The result is a dazzling and ultimately, profoundly moving, account of the Christmas story.

To celebrate the Christmas season, here are a handful of my favorite excerpts from Adams’s oratorio. The complete work can be heard in the Spotify playlist at the end of this post.

1. The Babe Leaped in Her Womb/Magnificat

Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth is given an intriguing musical treatment in Adams’s oratorio. Setting words from the King James Version of Luke’s Gospel, three countertenors (who act as narrators throughout the work) recount the story above a gentle instrumental backdrop—colored by guitar and tuned percussion—with occasional interpolations from the chorus. The titular phrase “The babe leaped in her womb” is set with buoyant cross-rhythms—a delightfully ear-catching moment.

Following this is Mary’s famous canticle of praise—the Magnificata text that has been set by countless composers over the centuries. Adams’s version is mostly reserved, yet brims with awe at the magnanimity of Mary’s situation. (In the oratorio’s only official recording to date, this portion is ravishingly sung by the American soprano Dawn Upshaw.)

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John Adams: “Naïve and Sentimental Music”

This is the first installment of a new series I am calling Quick TakesSince I am a busy grad student and don’t always have boatloads of time to write lengthy, in-depth blog posts (as much as I would like that!), Quick Takes will hopefully allow me to generate more occasional posts that shorter and blurb-like. Each will be around 250-500 words (roughly speaking) and focus on one specific item – a favorite piece of mine, a composer who I am currently into, or anything else of musical interest.


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American composer John Adams (b. 1947)

John Adams is one of my all-time favorite living composers. His music, which ranges from full-length operas to concerti, is filled with stunning harmonic worlds, inventive orchestrations, and an irresistible groove that seems innately “American.” (It’s also extremely difficult stuff to play – trust me, I speak from personal experience!) Many of his pieces – especially those from his so-called “minimalist” phase like Short Ride in a Fast Machine, The Chairman Dances, and Harmonium – have become twentieth-century classics. However, a bit lesser known are some of his more recent works from the last twenty years, when Adams began to develop and expand his musical palette.

One such work is Naïve and Sentimental Music, a vast, three-movement “symphony” that was premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka Salonen in February 1999. Sadly, this piece doesn’t turn up in concert all that often, possibly due to the immense orchestral forces required and the sheer challenge of the music itself. Further, only one commercial recording currently exists (albeit a fantastic one by the LA Phil – posted below), but the Royal Scottish National Orchestra will be releasing the work’s second recording in May.

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