Music for JFK
I am a little late with this, owing to work (finishing the next songwriting book), but I thought it worth writing about regardless. On the evening of November 22, I attended a choral concert in Exeter College Chapel, here in Oxford, titled ‘Requiem ’63’. The music chosen was intended to mark the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten, as well as mark the 50th anniversary of the deaths of C.S. Lewis, Aldous Huxley, and John F. Kennedy. The piece selected for JFK was Herbert Howells’ setting of ‘Take him, earth, for cherishing’ (1964). The BBC’s music magazine had published an article about music connected with the death of Kennedy which was rather disappointing. In previous blogs I’ve mentioned Roy Harris’ superb ‘Epilogue – Profiles in Courage’ as the best elegiac JFK piece I’ve heard (it’s available on the Naxos label).
Investigating the topic reveals a number of other pieces in the classical field. Robert Bernat wrote ‘In Memoriam: John F. Kennedy (Passacaglia for Orchestra)’ which is not well-known but was released on an Albany Records LP played by the Louisville Orchestra in 1980. Ronald Lo Presti wrote ‘Elegy for a Young American’ for brass band. Stravinsky produced a very short (90 seconds or so) setting of a W.H.Auden poem ‘Elegy for JFK’. The French composer Darius Milhaud wrote ‘Meurtre d’un grand chef d’etat’. Leonard Bernstein dedicated his third symphony (‘Kaddish’) to Kennedy, and Roger Sessions his third piano sonata which he was then at work on in Berlin (regarded as one of the hardest pieces in the piano repertoire). There are probably many more, not so famous either because the composer is not well-known, or the title disguises the subject – as is the case with John Barry’s ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ from his album The Beyondness of Things.
2013 saw newly-commissioned pieces added to the list. The Dallas Symphony Orchestra performed ‘The World Is Very Different Now’ by 19-year old Conrad Tao (about 17 mins long) and the Nasher Scuplture Center’s ‘Soundings’ concert series included Steven Mackey’s ‘One Red Rose’ for string quartet.
In popular music there have been many songs about the death of Kennedy, though very few have much of a profile. Probably the most notable are Dion’s ‘Abraham, Martin and John’, memorably covered by Marvin Gaye, from the late 1960s, ‘He Was A Friend Of Mine’ by The Byrds (1965), Phil Ochs’ ‘Crucifixion’, and The Kingston Trio’s ‘Song For A Friend’ (written by John Stewart). The edition of the famous British TV satire show That Was The Week That Was broadcast on November 23, 1963 featured Millicent Martin singing ‘In the Summer of His Years’ which was covered by Mahalia Jackson and Connie Francis, but is only remembered in the context of the impact of TW3. Two songs with a more oblique connection are Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Sound of Silence’, which for many captures the desolation of the post-assassination period, and The Beach Boys’ ‘The Warmth of the Sun’, which was written after a concert on the night of the 22nd.
At the time there were a number of Kennedy-themed LPs released. Some of the songs have been collected on albums such as Can’t Keep From Crying: Topical blues on the death of President Kennedy (1994) and Tragic Songs from the Grassy Knoll. There are many songs which make passing mention of the assassination or draw on imagery associated with it – Tori Amos’ ‘Jackie’s Strength’ and Elvis Costello’s ‘Less Than Zero’ which had its lyric re-written for the US market by changing the reference to Oswald Moseley, the 1930s British fascist, to Lee Harvey Oswald.
And finally I should mention my own 12 minute piece for orchestral strings ‘At Runnymede’ (2002), revised a couple of times, and which I hope to put online at some point.