Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Benjamin Britten – We Shall Overcome

There are four anniversaries today, and three of them are of important events connected by a fascinating thread. November 22nd is remembered by many for the assassination of John F Kennedy in Dallas in 1963, while on a happier note Benjamin Britten was born in Lowestoft on this day in 1913, and quite appropriately today is also the name day of Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians. The connection between these three anniversaries also involves folk singer, political activist and pioneering conservationist, Pete Seeger. Here is the little known story.

In his Inaugural Address on January 20th 1961 President Kennedy vigorously defended the principle of liberty with these words: - Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

Despite this powerful rhetoric liberty was still under serious threat in the early days of the Kennedy administration. Prior to 1961 Pete Seeger had been investigated for sedition by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, harassed by the FBI and CIA, blacklisted, picketed, and stoned by conservative groups. In March 1961 Seeger (right) was convicted of contempt of Congress following his 1955 appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in New York. After his conviction, and before his successful appeal, Seeger obtained the court’s permission to tour England in the autumn of 1961.


In the two years since his last visit to England Seeger had developed a large following, and an audience of four thousand turned out at London’s Royal Albert Hall, which is best know today as the home of the BBC Promenade Concerts. The concert in 1961 was promoted by the English “Pete Seeger Committee” which had been formed to support the embattled musician; Paul Robeson was president, the great ballad singer Ewan MacColl was chairman, and the sponsors were Doris Lessing, Sean O’Casey and Benjamin Britten.

With acknowledgements to David Dunaway’s excellent biography of Pete Seeger (Da Capo ISBN 0306803992).

* This Path brings together Britten and J.F. Kennedy, but another one tells the story of how Britten felt unable to compose a memorial to the slain President - see Music does not exist in a vacuum.

* Eagle eyed readers will have noted I have only mentioned three of today’s four anniversaries. The fourth one is mere trivia – November 22nd is also my birthday.

For more on pluralism in the world of music take An Overgrown Path to BBC Proms - a multicultural society?

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7 comments:

Garth Trinkl said...

Happy birthday, pliable.
Enjoy your special day!

While Stravinsky's JFK Memorial Ode is certainly occasional, I don't believe that the same could be said about Herbert Howell's "Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing." Perhaps one of your readers has time to note what, in her or his opinion, are the most important dozen -- of hundreds -- works dedicated to the death of John F. Kennedy. (I can't seem to recall what Roger Sessions wrote on this death. Later, he dedicated his Walt Whitman Cantata "When Lilacs Last On The Dooryard Bloom'd" to the assasinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.)

*

November 22 is also considered the second anniversary of Ukraine's peaceful Orange Revolution, in which citizen action overturned a rigged presidential election and demanded transparency in democratic decision-making. Commemorations are being held this evening in Ukraine and in Washington, D.C. and New York City, and, I assume, London as well.

Pliable said...

Garth, we should also remember that Leonard Bernstein's Mass was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy in memory of her husband.

There was a lot of interesting discussion of Mass on my July 2005 article.

Pliable said...

And BBC Radio 3 has just told me that Kent Nagano was also born on November 22nd.

Which is neat, as he conducts the most recent version of Bernstein's Mass, although IMHO Lenny's own recording is far superior.

And I guess this could run and run, Joaquin Rodrigo was also born on November 22nd. I have always found it extraordinary that his divinely harmonius Concerto de Aranjuez was composed in that most discordant of years, 1939.

Pliable said...

It truly is a magic day. Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, eldest son of JSB, was born on November 22, 1710.

Pliable said...

Jazz has been neglected here of late. So let's add Gunther Schuller, born November 22, 1925.

Pliable said...

Oh dear, how could I have forgotten?

Jacob Obrecht, born November 22, 1458.

sfmike said...

Happy birthday, dude, and congratulations on sharing astrological signs with so many interesting characters, especially Benjy Britten

I share my birthday with Richard Wagner and Harvey Milk, of all people.