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Requiems For JFK

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This week, Dallas will host two musical premieres to mark the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s death. Great people have been remembered through music like this for centuries. KERA’s Jerome Weeks says that while musical styles have changed, the human need for such music hasn’t.

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Henry Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary from 1695 is the kind of memorial music we’ve traditionally used to mark the passing or the legacy of a great person. Memorial music is solemn, slow, often in a minor key, sometimes full of anguish or loss, sometimes inspiring and majestic, ultimately offering consolation and peace. A sample could have been taken from any of a hundred requiems or funeral marches. Writing them was practically a requirement for anyone who aspired to be considered a major composer. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz, Chopin, Verdi, Brahms, Dvorak: They all wrote at least one sizable piece of memorial music, and Mahler practically made a career out of it.

In fact, Peter Kupfer, SMU professor of music history, jokes that requiems were so prevalent — and our desire to read autobiographical emotions into every composition is so strong — that almost any piece in a minor key has gotten the “sad music” treatment. “As soon as a composer attaches a specific title ["Elegy," say, instead of "Concerto No. 4"], the sky’s the limit on the personal associations we’ll find in it.”

But much of that changed with the 20th century. Music became atonal, the Latin Mass fell out of favor and composers, like many other people, turned to religious traditions outside of Christianity. Composers certainly continued to write elegies but in very different forms — like Leonard Bernstein’s Kaddish (his Symphony No. 3), which was dedicated to John F. Kennedy and used Jewish prayers for the dead as its text.

Jamie Allen, the director of education for the Dallas Symphony, says, “The 20th century itself was breaking down all kinds of structures, and so there was a very deliberate move to not use the architecture of the past, to build a new architecture.”

Which is what composers face today when commemorating Kennedy: What traditions and conventions can they still use that evoke honest emotion? What can truly offer consolation — spiritually or musically?

emkennedy-rfkennedy-jokennedy-at-jfk-funeral-procession-1963-photo-001The fact is, there are still musical sounds that we associate with sorrow or loss: discordant notes, drums pounding like fate, violins sounding like weeping. In its very brief length (less than five minutes), Murder of a Great Chief of State, employs all of these. Darius Milhaud’s 1965 memorial of Kennedy will be performed by the DSO tonight. A rare event; it’s not often programmed because of its 3-minute length. Listeners may think Milhaud is just warming up when he’s already done.

Kupfer notes that very little funeral or memorial music seems to have been written by the atonal school of modern music. “But there’s been a shift in the last 30-40 years since the advent of minimalism,” he says, “a return to a more tonal music, something that’s more easily accessible.” As an example, he cites minimalist composer John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls, written in commemoration of 9/11, as perhaps the most significant memorial work composed in the past half-century. The haunting piece uses ambient and street traffic noise from New York as well as the names of the dead, woven in with Adams’ music. The listing of names makes Transmigration a musical equivalent to Maya Lin’s famous Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C., with its heartbreakingly simple black marble wall, spelling out America’s war dead.

But requiems — by their nature as liturgies — have texts to be sung. Both of the new works debuting in Dallas do not. That’s a different sort of challenge; you’ve got nothing but music to carry the listener through the process of mourning. On commission from the DSO, the 19-year-old wunderkind-pianist-composer Conrad Tao has written The World Is Very Different Now, which is also on tonight’s program. Tao says he didn’t think explicitly in terms of models or traditions when creating his 15-20 minute orchestral work. Instead, he considered “why is it that a certain type of lush string writing reminds me of Douglas Sirk movies or Barber’s Adagio for Strings? Why does it make me think of the sound of mourning – even if all of this is also, on some level, just a conditioned response?”

It’s a conditioned response partly because movie soundtracks have pushed these buttons for years. Our associations with them are often film images. The DSO’s Allen composed soundtracks. He says the techniques can fall easily into kitsch and cliché: This particular sound calls up that particular emotion: “That’s what I would call emotional theater. It’s saying you have to go here and you have to go there because that’s when the couple kisses, that’s when they leave.”

Allen says composers can certainly use these kinds of sounds, dip into these traditions. But he believes a richer, more effective elegy doesn’t make us feel things. It lets us enter its musical space and we find our own emotions in it. Allen compares a great requiem to a great cathedral like Chartres: We can wander around in it, experiencing different associations, working through our own feelings: “You want a place that allows you to find your own thoughts.” And Allen argues that until the appropriate musical memorial lets a culture do that, the event, the death, the feeling of loss, will remain unsettled.

In other words, styles and sounds and traditions may change, but the inherent human functions of funeral marches, requiems and elegies do not. Steve Mackey composed a chamber-music memorial, One Red Rose, which the Nasher Sculpture Center presents this weekend. Mackey says he’s organized it around the tension between public ceremony and private tragedy. That’s why one section is called “Fugue and Fantasy” (Kupfer notes fugues are often employed in memorial music) and another is called “Anthem and Aria.”

Mackey says he thought of Jackie Kennedy’s dignified composure after her husband’s murder. But that led him to recall his own devastation following the death of his mother and the experience of performing her funeral: “I had plenty of cathartic release, but then I found the sort of obligation, the responsibility, the privilege to be restrained and to perform this ritual — it really helped me.”

Actually, this is what many requiems and funerals try to do. They restrain our emotions with protocol, but they also channel those emotions. Too much restraint and the moment feels lifeless, too little restraint and we all fall apart.

That kind of personal moment amid the formal already exists in what might be called an accidental musical memorial for JFK. It’s one that still resonates with many listeners on YouTube (below). It’s Army Sgt. Keith Clark playing ‘Taps’ at Kennedy’s funeral in Arlington Cemetery in 1963. But it’s not simply the playing of the 24-note military standard that’s so evocative. Sgt. Clark cracks an E note, a flub that was immediately attributed to grief (and still occasionally is). “His lip quivered,” reporters said. Actually, Sgt. Clark revealed later, he’d been standing in the cold for three hours and had no chance to warm up.

Yet knowing that, it’s still hard to hear it and not be moved. It’s a bit of human frailty breaking through the military ceremony. Ask yourself: Would his performance have been as memorable — if it were flawless?

This Sunday, more than 100 buglers will honor both President Kennedy and the late Sgt. Clark by playing ‘Taps’ at Arlington.