Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Air and Simple Gifts

Perhaps odd, on the day following such a momentous event, to focus on five minutes of minority interest, but we all bring our own perspectives to things and focusing on a detail needn't exclude an appreciation of the bigger picture.

John Williams, apart from being Spielberg's house composer and spending thirteen years heading up the Boston Pops, has written various pieces of what would be called "occasional music", such as four Olympic overtures, the Liberty Fanfare for the Statue's centenary, not to mention various concertos, etc.

So it was natural that his phone should ring when a piece was needed for Obama's inauguration yesterday.

Which brings us to Air and Simple Gifts (the title omits to mention a brief coda).

Williams' decision to write a set of variations on the quaker song Simple Gifts is understandable: it's a popular tune with a 'classical' pedigree (best known as the finale of Appalachian Spring, by Aaron Copland, one of Obama's favourite composers). Classical music isn't normally a part of the ceremony but the Yale Concert Band was to usher Dwight Eisenhower into office in 1953 with a performance of Copland's Lincoln Portrait, before Republican representative Fred E Busbey (ironically from Illinois) complained about the gig being given to a commie

I think it's probably straining things to try to see some significance in the decision to give it to the same, slightly odd ensemble Messiaen chose for the Quartet for the End of Time

There's often a lot of talk about how film scores are now the only way that many people get to hear orchestral (read: classical) music. Williams might not have pushed the boat out in terms of the forces involved (apart from the stellar casting). Nevertheless, it's nice to think that one aspect of a great day was that a million people got to hear the piece live, and goodness known how many on TV and the web. 

Meanwhile BBC viewers were treated to Huw Edwards introducing "four of the most gifted musicians in the world" before proceeding to a pointless conversation with Matt Frei, who described how, in 1841, President William Henry Harrison gave the longest ever inaugural speech before catching pneumonia and dying ("which", Frei reassured the doubtless alarmed audience, "is not going to happen this time round"). Harrison actually lasted just about a month, thus becoming the holder of the shortest ever presidency. So perfectly timed was Frei and Edwards' annihilation of the Air - they finished just before the 'tune' came in - you could imagine it was planned to save us the horrors of having to listen to the first two minutes of a five-minute piece.


Rob said...

Yes, I was grumbling at Huw's chatter-over as we watched the inauguration here in the office.

But we also enjoyed the slip-up in the oath that drove Mr Obama to have another go today to silence all those conspiracy theorists. (Of course, all it will succeed in doing is create a batch of conspiracy theories.)

The last similar such big-occasion slip I remember was at the wedding of Charles and Diana, when the future Queen of People's Hearts got his forenames wrong. Not a good omen, then...

Rob said...

Oh, and I've started a cycling blog, btw -

John Riley said...

Now it transpires that they were doing a Britney and miming. I'd thought they were probably using their stand-in instruments as it was so cold assuming that the amplification would mean nobody could tell the difference anyway.

As to the second oath-taking: they didn't have a bible, so there's probably still some guy in a check shirt with a 12-bore sitting in his log cabin grumbling that it's not valid.

Rob said...

Barack and Chief Justice John should have done the same, and just mimed. Then they might not have bollocksed it up.

Tommy said...

I was in New York for the inauguration and watched NBC's coverage on a huge screen beneath the Rockefeller Center. It should be mentioned that the entire ceremony, including the Williams piece, was completely uninterrupted by host chatter. They let the whole thing run without comment. And the 2000 or so people with me watching were completely silent throughout the performance too.

I told John Williams about the BBC's shambles (people had told me about it) the following week when I was in LA and he was very dismayed, but met the news with a weary acceptance that most broadcasters simply don't care about classical music. He's right.