Election Day is upon us, calling us to head out to the polls and to exercise our democratic rights, perhaps to the accompaniment of some brass fanfares and beating drums.
As would, of course, be the case with anyone, the musical tastes of our past Presidents were dictated by the times in which they lived, constituting a mix of musical forms and styles ranging over several hundred years worth of music history. Indeed, some of them were musicians themselves – John Adams was a flutist; Woodrow Wilson was a singer and violinist; Richard Nixon was a pianist, memorably accompanying Pearl Bailey during a performance at the White House; and Bill Clinton was a saxophonist, a fact which was fodder for some satirical jabs at him during his administration.
The musical tastes of our first Chief Executive, George Washington himself, ran to dancing, especially the minuet, which he danced with great pleasure at his inaugural ball. His step-granddaughter, Nelly Custis, was a frequent performer in the Presidential house, and he purchased for her a five octave, two manual harpsichord from London, as well as one of the first pianos built in America. Among the musical scores owned by her were a keyboard arrangement of Gluck's overture to Iphigenie in Aulis, an excerpt from Handel's Water Music, and Haydn's Mermaid's Song.
Abraham Lincoln, President during arguably the most turbulent and trying time in our nation's history, was greatly enamored of music (especially grand opera) as a relief from stress, although he could neither read nor play music. He attended the opera about thirty times during his Presidency, including performances of Donizetti's La figlia del reggimento and Verdi's Un Ballo In Maschera. The United States Marine Band, under the baton of Francis Scala, performed operatic arrangements for him, including The Soldiers' Chorus from Gounod's Faust. Meda Blanchard, the first opera singer to perform in the White House, also sang for him, and, indeed, an inaugural opera was staged for him, Friedrich von Flotow's Martha.
Our Chief Executives' love of music continued into the Twentieth Century with Theodore and Edith Roosevelt, who were active supporters of the growing fraternity of American classical composers, and who hosted eight musicals every year, each attended by more than three hundred people. Their concerts featured the works of American composers, including Amy Beach, John Alden Carpenter, Arthur Foote and Edward MacDowell. Spanish cellist, Pablo Casals made his White House debut at the age of 28, playing a Boccherini sonata and Le Cygne by Camille Saint-Saëns.
By 1945, some great classical music had travelled across the Atlantic, and this was reflected in the musical tastes of Harry S. Truman, who had studied the piano as a young boy and had grown up on the music of many classical composers. He particularly loved Mozart's A Major Sonata, which he played for an audience of thirty million Americans during the first televised tour of the White House in 1952, as well as during a conference in Potsdam with Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin and pianist, Eugene List in attendance.
So, as we approach Election Day, let us all join together in a hearty rendition of Hail To The Chief!