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.