Spring for Music continues its inaugural festival with the Dallas Symphony’s first appearance at Carnegie Hall since Jaap van Zweden became music director in 2008. Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Steven Stucky has teamed up with the acclaimed librettist Gene Scheer for the concert drama August 4, 1964, a major composition for four vocal soloists, full chorus and orchestra.Van Zweden and the DSO premiered August 4, 1964 in September 2008 in Dallas’s renowned Meyerson Symphony Center.
The Dallas Symphony commissioned this work in observance of President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s 100th birthday in August 2008. August 4, 1964 explores the epic tragedy of the larger-than-life, Texas-born politician. His legacy in civil rights is admirable. His escalation of the Vietnam War remains controversial. Taken together, those two issues encapsulate the turbulent 1960s.
Stucky’s and Scheer’s concert drama focuses on the events of a single day, August 4, 1964, with digressions that allow us to peer into the psyches of four principal characters: LBJ himself; his defense secretary, Robert McNamara; Carolyn Goodman, the mother of Andrew Goodman, a murdered civil rights worker, and Fannie Lee Chaney, the mother of James Chaney, a Freedom Movement activist and Mississippi native who was also murdered. At the same time, the musical and textual digressions address the broader impact of the events that transpired that day.
With the chorus functioning sometimes as crowd and sometimes as Greek Chorus, and the orchestra as eloquent supporter and complement to Scheer’s vivid text, August 4, 1964 is a powerful addition to the corpus of musical works with political and historical resonance.
August 4, 1964
Born 7 November, 1949, in Hutchinson, Kansas
Currently residing in Ithaca, New York
Libretto by Gene Scheer
Born 28 April, 1958, in Manhattan
Currently residing in New York City
EAST COAST PREMIERE
The libretto is rooted in historical events from the 1960s.
Approximately 70 percent of Scheer’s libretto is documented quotations or poetry; 30 percent of the text is Scheer’s invention.
Listen for the sharp character contrast between LBJ and McNamara, reflected in the pacing of their music
A Stephen Spender poem figures prominently, sung exclusively by the chorus
Steven Stucky recalls that, when this commission was in its infancy, he cautioned himself not to try to write another Britten War Requiem or Adams Nixon in China.
Benjamin Britten’s 1963 masterpiece is, on the surface, an amalgam of a traditional sacred work and musical settings of poetry by Wilfred Owen. John Adams’s pathbreaking Nixon in China (1987) is no hybrid, but unequivocally an opera. The Metropolitan Opera added Nixon in China to its repertory earlier this year. So why the warning?
Both Britten’s and Adams’s works grappled with major political issues. In the case of Britten, it was war. He was commissioned to write the Requiem in observance of the consecration of Coventry Cathedral. After heavy bombing during the Second World War, the city of Coventry, in England’s Midlands, had built a new cathedral to replace the 14th-century edifice that the German Luftwaffe had destroyed. All Britain recognized the symbolic value of this new house of worship—and of Britten as its composer. His pacifist War Requiem remains one of the crowning glories of twentieth-century music. The work made a bold statement in its departure from the traditional Latin Requiem Mass.
Nixon in China is a different animal. Adams had taken on a modern historical event—Richard Nixon’s historic visit to Red China in 1972—and transformed it into the stuff of high art. Adams’s opera consists of six tableaux that explore the hemispheric differences in culture, politics and world views between the United States and Communist China.
Explosive material? Potentially, in both cases. But no more volatile than what librettist Gene Scheer and composer Steven Stucky had to grapple with in the career of Lyndon Baines Johnson. The original commission called for a major work dealing in some capacity with Johnson: his life, his presidency, his legacy, in observance of his 100th birthday in 2008. That left considerable latitude.
August 4, 1964 is neither a requiem nor an opera. It is not a sacred work (though it has a spiritual dimension), nor is it a staged drama (though plenty of drama transpires within its pages). Librettist Gene Scheer worked diligently to zero in on an appropriate topic, devouring biographies of LBJ and perusing thousands of documents at the LBJ library in Austin.
Scheer stumbled upon the remarkable historical coincidence of events on August 4, 1964 [see sidebar, “History Lesson”]. The bodies of three civil rights workers who had been missing for seven weeks were discovered on the same day as the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which was the catalyst for escalation of America’s military involvement in Vietnam. In one extraordinary day with major historical ramifications, the two dominant issues of LBJ’s presidency—the civil rights battle and the Vietnam War—coalesced in a way that no one could have predicted or scheduled.
“For the musical work, I had to explain the events in broad strokes,” Scheer says. “I wanted to make clear that LBJ sent the bombing raids because he and McNamara mistakenly thought that our forces had been attacked on August 4th. And of course I wanted to outline the tragic events which unfolded in Philadelphia, Mississippi, at the same time. Still, the primary idea of this piece was to transcend the mere facts and to allow music to depict the emotional reality of this pivotal day, which turned out to be a significant turning point for LBJ and the nation.”
Scheer’s concept for the libretto made excellent sense to Stucky, who was a teenager during the events that unfold in the course of August 4, 1964. He remembers those incidents vividly, though he acknowledges that, like Scheer, he underwent a refresher course in these corners of American history in the process of writing this work.
Scheer does not hew strictly to that date, although several scenes in the Oval Office evoke the immediacy of the day’s historic events. He opens with laments from the mothers of two of the murdered civil rights workers, recalling the tragedy and horror of the day after the fact. We also meet Johnson’s Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara (tenor). A juxtaposition has been established.
A poem by Stephen Spender
The chorus’s initial appearance also departs from the actual events of the title date. Their text is the English poet Stephen Spender’s “I think continually of those who were truly great.” A contemporary and friend of W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, Spender (1909-1995) came to prominence in the 1930s, writing personal and political poetry that revealed a strong social conscience.
His poem found its way into the libretto when Scheer learned that Andrew Goodman’s mother, Carolyn Goodman, had placed a copy of it on the wall of her New York apartment when she learned that her son had been murdered. She also had several lines of the poem engraved on her son’s tombstone. “Spender’s verse is connected to the emotional experience that Carolyn Goodman had during that awful time,” Scheer says. “The lines from his poem were what brought her comfort.” Stucky’s setting reserves the Spender poem for the chorus.
Other movements draw upon various sources: LBJ’s recollection of a visit to the home of a poor family in Appalachia; Mrs. Chaney’s recollection of her grandfather’s refusal to sell a successful family farm and the consequences of that refusal; Michael Schwerner’s application to work for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the famous “We Shall Overcome” speech, which Lyndon Johnson delivered to a joint session of Congress on March 15, 1965, following racial violence in Selma, Alabama. (Stucky incorporates snatches of the eponymous protest song in this movement; “We Shall Overcome” became the unofficial anthem of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.) Several members of the chorus have brief solos in the first two “Oval Office” movements, singing text taken from LBJ’s daily diaries.
Reflective moment for orchestra alone
Midway through August 4, 1964, the orchestra plays an instrumental Elegy. “We thought it would be good to break up the pacing with an orchestral movement,” Stucky says. “It occurs at an emotional point, when the horrific import of some of what you’ve heard begins to add up. It’s business as usual at the White House, except that Johnson and McNamara are beginning to talk about bombing.”
Stucky actually composed the Elegy first, adapting a choral setting of the Latin motet “O vos omnes” that he had written in 2005. “It was actually the first part of August 4, 1964 that I wrote,” he says. “I didn’t have the libretto yet, but thought I’d better get started anyway! The principal motive from the Elegy eventually became the main motive of the whole oratorio once I composed the rest of the music.”
The score calls for three flutes (second doubling alto flute, third doubling piccolo), two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets (third doubling piccolo trumpet), three trombones (third doubling bass trombone), tuba, timpani, a large percussion battery [see below], harp, a quartet of vocal soloists, mixed chorus, and strings.
Stucky specifies four percussionists in addition to the timpanist, deployed as follows:
Player I: chimes, marimba, xylophone, vibraphone, bongo, 2 brake drums, and tam-tam (shared with Player II)
Player II: snare drum, tam-tam, high wood block
Player III: 5 tom toms, sandpaper blocks, whip, crash cymbals, suspended cymbal
Player IV: 5 temple blocks, bass drum, whip
A recording of Steven Stucky’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Second Concerto for Orchestra was released in 2009 on the Bis label, with Lan Shui leading the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. The CD also contains Stucky’s Pinturas de Tamayo and Spirit Voices.
Listeners who wish to explore Stucky’s other orchestral music may seek out Son et Lumière (David Alan Miller and the Albany Symphony Orchestra; Albany Records); Dreamwaltzes (Lan Shui and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra; Bis) and Funeral Music for Queen Mary for Orchestra (after Purcell) (Clark Rundell and the Royal Northern College of Music Wind Orchestra; Chandos). Also: Michala Petri plays Stucky’s Etudes (recorder concerto) with Lan Shui and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra (Naxos). Baritone Jesse Blumberg sings the orchestral song cycle American Muse with Emily Freeman Brown and the Bowling Green State University Philharmonia (Albany).
Ann McCutchan, The Muse that Sings (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999)
The composer’s web site, www.stevenstucky.com, contains a generous sampling of his writings on music, as well as a biography, discography, list of works, and audio samples. Entries about Stucky appear in all the major music reference tools, including The New Grove II, The Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music, and Baker’s.
SIDEBAR: HISTORY LESSON: A NOTORIOUS CIVIL RIGHTS CRIME
On June 21, 1964, three young civil rights workers headed for Longdale, Mississippi, to investigate the recent torching of a black church that held civil rights meetings. One of the three, James Chaney, was a black Freedom Movement activist from nearby Meridian. The other two were white New Yorkers: anthropology student Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who had been working for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
Neshoba County police pulled over their station wagon late that afternoon on trumped-up speeding charges. The three young men were detained at the county jail for five hours and were not permitted to make telephone calls. Late in the evening, they were fined $20, released, and ordered to leave the county.
Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner never arrived at their destination. Their vehicle was found burned, with guns in its charred wreckage. There was no sign of the three men.
The case caused a national uproar, prompting President Lyndon Johnson to launch an FBI investigation. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, a notorious opponent of civil rights advocates, was initially uncooperative, but Johnson was adamant. The intense media scrutiny and outrage throughout the United States gave Johnson the political momentum to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 signed on July 2, 1964.
Seven weeks later, following up on a tip, the FBI unearthed the bodies of the missing men on a farm southwest of Philadelphia, Mississippi. Schwerner and Goodman had been shot; Chaney had been viciously beaten, then shot.
The date of this appalling, tragic discovery was August 4, 1964.
SIDEBAR: HISTORY LESSON: VIETNAM AND THE GULF OF TONKIN INCIDENT
When Lyndon Johnson became President on November 22, 1963, Vietnam had already been a divided country for nine years, when it was partitioned by means of the Geneva Accords. In the intervening years, the USA and some Pacific regional allies had undertaken support of South Vietnam, while the communist North sector of the Southeast Asian country received aid and supplies from the USSR and China.
During the Kennedy years, American financial and military advisory assistance increased gradually but steadily. Still, the American military element remained advisory. During the Johnson years, the war escalated to the point where, in 1968, more than half a million American troops were stationed in Vietnam or otherwise committed to the Vietnam War.
The pivotal year for the change was 1964, and the pivotal event precipitating America’s increased military involvement in Vietnam was the Gulf of Tonkin incident.
Vietnam is a long, narrow country enclosing the entire eastern edge of the Southeast Asian peninsula. The Gulf of Tonkin lies to the east, constituting Vietnam’s coastline. To the north is China, to the east the Chinese island of Hainan.
On August 2, 1964, the USS Maddox, stationed in the Gulf of Tonkin, reported that it had been attacked by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats in international waters nearly 30 miles off the Vietnamese coast. The Maddox claimed to have survived the attack with the assistance of another American ship, and said it countered by firing guns that repelled the Vietnamese.(Later reports disputed this account, stating that the Maddox initiated the skirmish.) The press reported it as an unprovoked attack.
Two days later, the captain of the Maddox apparently misread dots on his radar screen and concluded that the North Vietnamese torpedo boats had returned. He wired Honolulu that his ship was being attacked. Honolulu notified Washington, where the President and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara resolved that the United States must respond. Over the next several hours, the Maddox’s captain sent two additional cables, acknowledging that the radar had presented a confusing picture, then allowing that he was not sure what had happened.
Johnson and McNamara chose to ignore the second cable. Over national television, the President informed the country that he was ordering the military to retaliate. Congress authorized military action a few days later with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Bombing began soon after.
Johnson and McNamara had crossed the Rubicon. The date was August 4, 1964.
SIDEBAR: ABOUT THE LIBRETTIST
If Gene Scheer’s name sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’re an opera buff. He wrote the libretto for Tobias Picker’s Thérèse Raquin, premiered by The Dallas Opera in 2001, and for Picker’s An American Tragedy, which received its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in 2005, starring Susan Graham and Patricia Racette. Scheer has also collaborated with composer Jake Heggie on Last Acts (2008; now retitled Three Decembers) and Moby Dick, which made its debut during the inaugural season at Dallas’ Winspear Opera House in 2010.
Scheer became a librettist via a circuitous route. He was an English major at Hamilton College for two years, then transferred to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester to study voice. After completing two degrees at Eastman, he headed to Vienna for post-graduate work, intending to pursue a career in opera performance. The career as an opera singer did not pan out, but Scheer picked up years of valuable experience working in musical theater, operetta, theatre and film.
“Just to keep my soul alive, I started writing songs,” Scheer recalls. “When I returned to the States, I worked on some libretti for other composers, but mostly I wrote songs. Several prominent singers heard my songs, liked them, and started programming them. That brought me to the attention of [the opera director] Francesca Zambello and Tobias [Picker]. That’s how the whole librettist thing started.”
Although Scheer continued performing into the 1990s, by the mid-1990s he was working almost exclusively as a writer. Since then he has collaborated with the documentary film maker Ken Burns (Norah Jones sang a Scheer song in the PBS series The War) and jazz legend Wynton Marsalis, in addition to his work in opera. And he still composes songs.
“Principally what I do is write texts for other composers,” he says. “My experience writing songs and my time in the theater helps to inform the work I do for other composers. Sometimes I hear music in my head when I’m working on a text. Most of the time, however, composers see what I’ve written and take it from there. It’s thrilling to see where their imaginations carry the text. That certainly happened with Steve [Stucky] in August 4, 1964.
“I’m very happy with the way things turned out, because I have the opportunity to work with such talented people, people I respect enormously,” he says.
SIDEBAR: ABOUT THE COMPOSER
Steven Stucky lived a bicoastal life for two decades. Based in Ithaca, New York, where he teaches composition at Cornell University, he was associated with the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1988, when its former music director, André Previn, appointed him composer-in-residence, until 2009. Their west coast relationship evolved to encompass the roles of new music advisor and consulting composer. Stucky worked closely with the conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen in developing Los Angeles’s pathbreaking programs.
Stucky has now forged a stimulating partnership with the New York Philharmonic. From 2005 to 2009, he moderated conversations with composers such as John Corigliano, Elliott Carter and Kaija Saariaho in a Philharmonic series called “Hear & Now.” He was recently named Composer of the Year for the Pittsburgh Symphony’s 2011-2012 season.
Stucky has connections to Texas: he attended Baylor University, where he studied composition with Richard Willis. He earned his doctorate from Cornell University, working with Robert Palmer and Karel Husa. After a brief stint at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, Stucky returned to Cornell in 1980. He has served on its faculty ever since and is now Given Foundation Professor of Composition and Artistic Director of Ensemble X, a new music chamber ensemble. Nationally, Stucky has earned high praise not only for his own compositions, but also for his writing—he is a published author and a prolific essayist—and for his championship of other new music.
Coincident with August 4, 1964, Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic premiered Stucky’s Rhapsodies for orchestra at London’s prestigious Promenade concerts (the “Proms”). His most recent works include a Chamber Concerto (2009), which the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra premiered in March 2010, and Allegretto quasi Andantino (Schubert Dream) for piano, four hands. Emanuel Ax and Yoko Nozaki played its first performance at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in January of this year. Stucky is currently working on a commission for the Pittsburgh Symphony and New York Philharmonic to be premiered next February.
SIDEBAR: LBJ: VILLAIN OR TRAGIC HERO?
Librettist Gene Scheer and composer Steven Stucky know considerably more about LBJ and his presidency than they did before collaborating on August 4, 1964. Each of them weighed in on the question, “In your view, was LBJ a villain or a tragic hero?”
Stucky: I’m not a literary critic, but I would say ‘no’ to villain. He was a complicated person, and there were probably venal elements in his character as there are in anybody larger than life. I think that he might overwhelmingly have been a heroic figure in American history had Vietnam not happened. Most of the time, he was operating with noble motives. He is a classic tragic figure in the sense that he was a great man who was undone by an internal flaw—but with the best of intentions.
It’s pretty clear that, for all his huge political skills, Johnson was the worst possible person to have in the Oval Office when Vietnam happened, because he was the least likely actually to understand how to deal with these events. His talent was for making deals on Capitol Hill: jaw-boning, horse-trading and arm-twisting until everybody was more or less happy. I think he thought, right to the end, that if he could just talk to the North Vietnamese, promise them a dam, bring electric power to the countryside as he did in Texas, everybody would be happy. His genius in domestic policy failed him completely in foreign policy. He was just the wrong person in the wrong spot.
Scheer: I think he is a tragic figure—but neither hero nor villain. When I started this project, the first biography I read was Robert Caro’s, which goes only through 1960, but you still grasp that Johnson was a brilliant, complicated guy whose strengths and weaknesses constantly emerged and receded throughout his life.
Through other biographies by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Robert Dallek and Randall Woods, a larger picture emerged. The more I read in the LBJ library, the more I listened to LBJ on the tapes, the more I liked him. It’s a cliché but it’s true: he did great things and he did horrible things. That stated, I think his intentions were good. The tragedy of LBJ is that his worthy dream of a Great Society, and the goals he accomplished, were in large measure eclipsed by his profound errors of judgment in Vietnam.
Another thing about LBJ—the photographs tell it—he was tortured by things going wrong, especially in Vietnam. They were trying to do the right thing in the Gulf of Tonkin. They were scared of the Russians, they were scared of the expansion of Communism. It’s now clear that the second Gulf of Tonkin incident didn’t happen. The consequences compound the tragedy of Johnson’s and McNamara’s decision to initiate bombing.
BY LAURIE SHULMAN, ©2011
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