JFK: The Voice of Peace

An Oratorio for Chorus and Orchestra with Narrator and Solo Violoncello

Dan Welcher

Text: Texts selected and assembled by Ann McCutchan
Publisher: Elkan-Vogel, Inc.
Print Status: Rental

Quick Overview

There is no character in Twentieth Century American history with a larger and more lasting presence than John Fitzgerald Kennedy. In the brief three years of his Presidency (1961-1963), he became the voice and the face of America at a time of great change and great promise. More than thirty-five years after his death, he is still revered as a demigod in Europe, and remembered fondly around the globe as if he is still alive. JFK, whom many saw as a Boy King (he was the youngest man ever elected to the American Presidency), quickly and surely made himself known as a statesman, a protector of freedom, and a visionary. Americans are still experiencing, at the end of the "American Century," some of the dreams and ideals that the Kennedy era began: the amazing achievements of the space program; the enduring progress of the civil rights movement; a new appreciation and cultivation of the arts; and above all, the promotion and protection of peace in the world.

How can a composer capture this man and these times in a work of contemporary music? When the idea of an oratorio containing both a narrator and a solo cello (in addition to the orchestra and chorus) was first brought to my attention by the New Heritage Music Foundation in November of 1997, the task seemed overwhelming. In addition to the problem of balancing four disparate entities carefully throughout forty-five minutes of music, and keeping both narrator and cello busy enough to warrant their constant presence on the stage, there was the even larger consideration of What Words To Use.

The first idea put forth was that all the texts should come from Kennedy's speeches and writings. It quickly became clear, though, that the chorus would need poetry as both a foil and an enlightening tool for the ideas put forth in the lines of oratory by the narrator. So I turned to Ann McCutchan, a highly sensitive writer and musician who had crafted two previous works-with-narration with me, and asked her to assemble a libretto. Specifically, I asked her to find poems that would illuminate some of the ideas I had already identified on which to build my piece. The poems should be, if possible, by poets familiar to Kennedy--poets of his time, or poets that he admired. And these poems should go hand-in-glove with the speeches that were being chosen for the narrator---poems that could comment in an abstract way, poems that a chorus could sing as a kind of collective conscience. The idea became one of interspersing speech with poetry, narrator with chorus, and prosaic thought with reflective interpretation.

I wanted a three-part form to fill the 45 minutes of the planned commission. Very loosely, those three parts would follow an emotional curve of Premonitions, Dreams, and Legacy. Ms. McCutchan's libretto begins with Kennedy's Inaugural Speech (on that blustery January day that also involved the appearance of the aged Robert Frost) and ends with the very last speech he was to give in Dallas in 1963, the day of his assassination. In between, it also contains excerpts from other speeches, press statements, letters from two Peace Corps volunteers, and a great deal of poetry. Poetry by another Bostonian (Mary Oliver), the aforementioned Robert Frost, the great black poet Langston Hughes, the World War I American poet Alan Seeger, a ten-year-old African child who was taught English by a Peace Corps volunteer, an Irish poet named Daniel Lawrence Kelleher, and William Shakespeare.

Tying all of this together as a kind of wordless "Voice of JFK" is a solo cello. The cello part, conceived and written for the fine American cellist Paul Tobias, represents a spirit and a presence that informs the rest of the work. In fact, the opening cello soliloquy is entirely based on four melodic motives: the words "Peace," "Kennedy" and the initials "J.F.K." are all represented by the musical notes implicit in the letters (in the German musical alphabet employed for this purpose since before the time of Bach). The fourth motive, a longer one, is a direct quote from another Bostonian, the colonial hymnodist William Billings (often said to be America's first professional composer). This tune, called "The Lamentation Over Boston," is found in Billings' second collection of anthems, called THE SINGING-MASTER?S APPRENTICE, and has a particularly Kennedy-esque sense of premonition. It was written, in fact, during the siege of Boston by the British (just prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence), where Billings and his friend and engraver Paul Revere were lodged in the village of Watertown.

Part I:
The cello introduces us to JFK and his times, and the narrator enters quietly with Kennedy's inaugural words, eventually drawing the orchestra and, at length, the chorus into the action. The first choral episode, Mary Oliver's poem "Last Days," is a commentary-through-nature on Kennedy?s sense of Time and Place:

Things are
changing; things are starting to
spin, snap, fly off into
the blue sleeve of the long

The cello rejoins the ensemble, this time as chief protagonist, at the height of Oliver's poem (after the line "Now! booms the muscle of the wind") with a Nightmare Scherzo that is a complete piece in itself, an emotional expression of collective fear and foreboding that was America in the first days of the Cold War.

Following the Scherzo, the narrator returns with lines of Shakespeare that were always in Kennedy's thoughts (he had a prodigious memory for poetry): the famous St. Crispin's speech that Henry V gives to his troops before the monumental battle of Agincourt. This speech alternates with the lines of another favorite poem of JFK's, "I Have A Rendezvous With Death" by the World War I poet Alan Seeger, and brings Part I to an unsettled close.

Part II is the antithesis of these forebodings, and represents Kennedy the Idealist. Beginning with one of Robert Frost's lesser known poems called "Riders," it sets a galloping tone and an almost giddy spinning out of ideas: JFK's words about the Space Program, the Civil Rights movement, and the Peace Corps are set between the verses of Frost's powerful, roughhewn poem. The final line, ?"e have ideas yet that we haven't tried," could be said to be Kennedy?s own vision of the goals of his Presidency.

The orchestra climbs as high as JFK's vision, and then transforms itself into a kind of halo of sound. The narrator leads us into the realm of Peace, and the chorus intones a setting of Langston Hughes' "I Dream A World"--a forerunner of Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech. Part II ends softly, as Part I did--but with a sense of contentment and serenity.

Part III sets us down in the midst of chaos---the orchestra is wild, undisciplined, and strangely hallucinatory. Readers from within the chorus present two texts: a letter from a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal reacting to the Voice of America broadcast announcing the death of the President, and another letter from a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador describing an impromptu mass given at a village church in his memory. The chorus joins as a kind of organ in the latter reading, taking us from the shock of hearing the news to the grief of accepting that news.

Following the church episode, a choral setting of "Kono Mountain" makes the unimaginable become personal: a young boy's longing for his missing father, described in quasi-African village singing:

Each night
I go to Kono Mountain
And stand on the high peak.
I stare out
At the horizon
Until it gets up
And comes to embrace me.
Make believe it is my father.

The narrator returns, delivering lines from Kennedy's "Family of Man" speech, followed by a "Benediction" taken from JFK's final, undelivered speech for Dallas. The prophecy is laid out, and as the narrator finishes his final text, the chorus blooms into an anthem-like setting of a poem that was delivered by the Irish ambassador at John F. Kennedy Jr.'s christening; a poem that moved JFK to tears and that he quickly committed to memory---
"For C.K.," by Daniel Lawrence Kelleher:

We wish to the new child
A heart that can be beguiled by a flower
That the wind lifts as it passes
Over the grasses after a summer shower,
A heart that can recognize
Without the aid of the eyes
The gifts that life holds for the wise.
When the storms break for him,
May the trees shake for him their blossoms down.
In the night that he is troubled
May a friend wake for him
So that his time is doubled,
And at the end of all loving and love,
May the Man Above
Give him a crown.

I am grateful to the New Heritage Music Foundation, Inc. for commissioning and, indeed, imagining this work, and especially to the memory of Harry Offenhartz, whose vision guided the creation of every page of the music

Available on Rental

Scores & Parts

I Dream a World - Octavo

Additional Information

Commission Commissioned by New Heritage Music Foundation.
Composition Date 1998
Duration 00:54:00
Orchestration SATB Chorus, 1 Male & 1 Female Speaker, Mezzo-Soprano or Boy Soprano; Solo Cello; 2(dbl. Picc.) 2 2 2 - 2 2 0 0; Timp. 2Perc. Pno. Hp. Str.
Premiere March 19, 1999 - Handel & Haydn Society, conducted by Daniel Beckwith