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Music Feature Print



Persichetti-Lincoln-Nixon – a Study in Inaugural Politics

Photo by Peter Schaaf, courtesy of the Juilliard Archives. Used with permission of the photographer and the school.

Vincent Persichetti at Juilliard's Festival of Contemporary Music, January-February 1981.

January 20, 2021 - Raleigh, NC:


Coping with crisisIn 1972, Richard Nixon was re-elected as President of the United States. As part of the second inaugural festivities, it was decided to feature an orchestral concert. Nixon himself chose for the occasion his favorite orchestra and conductor: the Philadelphia Orchestra and their Music Director, Eugene Ormandy. Nixon also chose two of the major selections: Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture and Grieg's Piano Concerto, with Van Cliburn. The concert was to be held at the newly-built Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. A committee was formed by Nixon supporters to help with the details. It's not known who, but someone got the brilliant idea of commissioning an American composer to supply the concert with a world premiere of a new work. The committee then approached Vincent Persichetti to write the work. He was then 57 years old, taught at The Juilliard School, and was one of the best known American composers. His music was championed by Ormandy, who probably put forth his name to the committee. The committee asked the composer to write a piece modeled after Copland's "Lincoln Portrait." They wanted a piece for narrator and orchestra that would use as its text Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. (That made some sense; both were Republican Presidents celebrating their re-election). For the role of narrator, the committee acquired the services of famed actor Charlton Heston, best known for his film portrayals of Ben-Hur and Moses.

This was December, 1972, and Persichetti was given only three weeks to write the work. This was not enough time, which is probably why he took a great deal of the piece directly from his 1959 Symphony No. 7 "Liturgical" (a total of 175 bars out of a total of 246). As he was finishing this work, he received a phone call from the inaugural committee. Several months later, Persichetti described this call in an interview for The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin"

"I started getting a lot of phone calls from inaugural committee members, asking me to delete certain lines (from the address). Although I'm completely against what's going on in Vietnam, I agreed to the deletions…. I agreed to cut out a line that goes something like, 'insurgent agents in the city seeking to destroy it without war.' These aides were very sensitive to lines like these."

Here is the complete second paragraph from Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address:

"On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war – seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated the war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came."

The committee was obviously afraid that people would see that line as criticizing Nixon's involvement in the Vietnam War. Protests against the war had already begun in 1966, during the Johnson administration. By 1972, the nation had seen campus riots and deaths, civil disobedience, and international disapproval. Nixon had been elected in 1968, partially because he proposed a "secret plan" that would quickly end the war. The "secret" was there was no secret plan. Instead, he escalated the war and committed what many considered to be an illegal and immoral action by bombing Cambodia, a country with which we were not at war. After that, street protests multiplied around the country, often encircling the White House. Hence the committee's concern about the line "Insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it."

As he mentioned in that later interview, Persichetti was 100% against the war…, but he decided to stay apolitical. He deleted the lines. But then, MORE requests came for additional deletions. One has to wonder if Nixon was involved – or the President's "henchmen," H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman. (Haldeman does not mention any of this in "The Haldeman Diaries.")

It is not known what additional phrases the committee wanted to be removed from the work. In his bio-bibliography, he told writer Donald Patterson that his "conscience rebelled" at these requests for additional deletions and, this time, Persichetti put his foot down. He told the committee there would be no more cuts. Perhaps he was offended by these deletions because he considered it to be a literary masterpiece that shouldn't be tampered with.

There are many people, myself included, that consider Lincoln's Second Address to be his finest speech, even superior to his Gettysburg Address. The day that speech was first delivered, Frederick Douglass, an abolitionist who had been a slave, was there, and afterwards went to see Lincoln at the White House. He was refused entrance to the building because of his color. But word got to Lincoln that Douglass was at the front door and he was invited in. As Lincoln saw Douglass enter the room, he said, "Here comes my friend Douglass. I am glad to see you. I saw you in the crowd today, listening to my address. There is no man in this country whose opinion I value more than yours. I want to know what you think of it". Douglass replied, "Mr. President, that was a sacred effort."

And so it was. Today, it is best remembered for its noble and compassionate ending that anticipates welcoming the Confederacy back in the Union with these words, "With malice toward none and charity for all." Persichetti was correct: it is not a document to be chopped up and its meaning destroyed by philistines, political hacks, and paranoid gutless wonders. (I am William Henry Curry and I approve that message.)

Persichetti continued working and completed the piece, giving it the title "A Lincoln Address." A few days later, on January 9, 1973, just ten days before the inauguration, Eugene Ormandy phoned Persichetti and told him that his piece for the concert had been cancelled by the committee… – with no explanation.

A "cause célèbre" then erupted. The controversy made the front page of The New York Times. This coverage was duplicated by newspapers all over the country. Many players in the Philadelphia Orchestra were outraged, and eleven members vowed not to play the concert, including the principal cellist, Samuel Mayes.* A bit later (after how much pressure from Ormandy and/or the Philadelphia Orchestra management?) the musicians decided to play, but all signed a formal letter of protest.

The concert went ahead, without Persichetti's piece. To fill the place of that work, the Nixon administration asked Aaron Copland if he minded if some of his music was used. Copland did not like Nixon but agreed to the request that his music be played. (But he did not attend the concert.) Copland had reason to be gracious towards Nixon. On his 70th birthday he had received a congratulatory telegram from President Nixon. On the day it arrived he showed it to two young friends. The young men then preceded to roll marijuana in the telegram and suggest they smoke it. Copland snatched back the telegram and said, "No, that's from a president. It goes in my scrapbook!"

Nixon did attend the concert and mentioned his impressions about it in a diary entry dictated the night after the concert:

 "When singer Mike Curb stepped up at the end of the performance and said that the President had done more to bring peace in the world than anybody else, I thought we would get a few boos. Interestingly enough, he got a pretty good cheer for it, which allayed one of my fears I had as we went to the concert, having read earlier that eleven of Eugene Ormandy's orchestra members requested the right not to come. Ormandy said that he would have liked me to come to the stage and stand beside him just to show those 'left-wing sons of bitches'. What a man he is!"

As for Persichetti's "A Lincoln Address," of course, with all this attention, conductors clamored to play the piece. (There's nothing like free publicity!) The world premiere was given on January 25, 1973. The orchestra was the St. Louis Symphony, conducted by Walter Susskind. The narrator was William Warfield, of Porgy and Bess and "Ol' Man River" fame, who at his last orchestral concert narrated MY work for narrator and orchestra, Eulogy for a Dream, a piece that uses the words of Martin Luther King. My work and my introduction to it can be found at the Durham Symphony Orchestra website.

As a post-script, in the aftermath of the Persichetti-Lincoln-Nixon affair, Persichetti very much enjoyed his new-found fame. In an amusing comment, he said that he knew that the students at Juilliard were now finally interested in his music… – because they had begun to steal it from the Juilliard library!

*Whose spouse, Winifred, died last week; click here.

Editor's Note: Maestro Curry has amplified and illustrated this article in his weekly "Monday Musicale" of Jan. 25, 2021, available here: https://durhamsymphony.org/2021/01/25/monday-musicale-with-the-maestro-january-25-2021-grappling-with-defeat-nixons-dark-path-to-grace-and-dignity/.