Friday, December 14, 2018

Man/Myth/Music: Hearing the Life and Legacy of John McCain

By Dan Blim, James Deaville, Naomi Graber, and Dana Gorzelany-Mostak

On August 25, 2018, John Sidney McCain III—naval aviator, war hero, senator, two-time presidential contender, and stalwart Republican—succumbed to complications arising from an aggressive brain tumor at the age of 81. After lying in state at both the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix and the rotunda of the United States Capitol in Washington, heads of state, foreign dignitaries, congressional colleagues, and family gathered to celebrate McCain’s life and service at the Washington National Cathedral on September 1. The service itself was one that McCain had a direct hand in. Shortly before his death, McCain convened his closest aides to plan for his own funeral. According to the New York Times, the former POW “obsessed over the music.”<1>

The media did not share this preoccupation, but it did obsess over the political meanings of the event. Although he was not present (in accordance with McCain’s wishes) and his name was not uttered at the actual service, President Donald Trump’s presence loomed large, if only in the form of an unseen foil to emphasize McCain’s public persona of humble heroism. The senator’s friend, John F. Lehman Jr., did not believe the funeral arrangements were directed at Trump. But he added, “Trump was definitely a catalyst to get [McCain] focused on pushing those symbolic issues.’”<2> Others agreed with this assertion, referring to the event as a “resistance meeting,” an “exercise in civic communication,” a “funeral for the loss of American ideals,” and “a two-and-a-half hour rebuke of Trump.”<3> Might the symbolism Lehman (and others) have noted extend to the music programme the candidate curated for his final farewell? If so, what meaning might such a programme hold for a nation as it comes together to mourn an American hero against the backdrop of a fractious political landscape?

Memorial services are shaped by multiple competing forces. In the case of a politician, they are both private affairs for the family and public affairs for the nation. They mourn a loss and celebrate a life. Church and state intermingle throughout. We can see evidence of these dualities in Meghan McCain’s speech, balancing private memories with acknowledgements of her father’s public service, and hear it in the sounds as John McCain’s casket entered: reverential silence and tolling bells alongside the clicking of cameras from the media. Music served these multiple functions too, marking McCain’s multiple identities (e.g., war hero, presidential candidate, senator, father, Christian, “maverick”), and directing the emotions of those in attendance.<4>

John McCain as Bipartisan Politician

Before the service of McCain’s funeral began, organ music played as attendees gathered and greeted one another. The selections were a mix of hymns and classical music transcriptions—Handel’s Largo from Xerxes, Tchaikovsky’s Andante cantabile from the Symphony No. 5, and Elgar’s “Nimrod” from the Enigma Variations, among others. Comforting and familiar, these works not only infused the National Cathedral with solemnity and pathos, but also functioned effectively as background music for the attendees.

And yet, one might wonder if the selection of “Simple Gifts” caught anyone’s attention. Perhaps not—the music is, like many of these selections, familiar and it easily fits with both genres employed, being a religious Shaker melody adapted for Christian worship and playing a prominent role in Aaron Copland’s iconic Appalachian Spring. But then again, perhaps it did. Unlike most of the other works played before the service, this melody has a nationalistic sentiment woven into its history. Indeed, it foreshadowed the overtly patriotic music performed as part of the service, and called attention to the political functions of the ceremony.

“Simple Gifts” would seem to be an especially meaningful selection; its cultural life in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has been multifaceted, much like McCain’s career. The first modern printing of the tune dates from 1937, and soon thereafter it entered the national spotlight during wartime via Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring.<5> Annegret Fauser notes that Copland’s use of the melody merged wartime nationalism with postwar optimism, and turned the melody into “a signifier of Americana.”<6> McCain’s career similarly merged wartime hero with postwar service. In the notes to a Copland-themed episode of Keeping Score, an educational music series on PBS led by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, “Simple Gifts” is painted as expressing a utopian ideal, mirroring their attitude toward Copland’s style in general: “The late war years were an uncertain time for Americans. But Copland’s music seemed to give them a new purpose. Copland’s great insight was that he could rouse and unite people not by scaring them or making them angry, but by helping them confirm a sense of ownership and pride that they all shared as Americans.”<7> While heavily romanticized, this attitude toward Copland and “Simple Gifts” nevertheless echoes McCain’s own public rhetoric. His final address to the Senate emphasized his pride in the United States, “a nation of ideals,” and his desire for a nation and government united by that belief in a similarly uncertain time: “We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down.”<8>

Following Copland’s use of the tune, “Simple Gifts” grew in popularity as both a folksong and a religious hymn. Roger Lee Hall comments that, as a Shaker song, the music and lyrics stress two key principles of the Shaker Faith: simplicity and unity.<9> While these ideals fueled its prevalence with the folk revival, and by extension leftist communitarian politics, simplicity and unity also seem apt in the context of John McCain. His public persona revolved around his trademark “straight-talk” and policies like campaign finance reform, both emphasizing a straightforward simplicity in his politicking, while his bipartisan work touted a desire for political unity across the aisle.<10> By the 1970s, the hymn had also entered the mainstream of Christian music as “The Lord of the Dance,” with new lyrics written by English poet Sydney Carter in 1963. The music’s dual nationalistic and religious nature speaks not only to its suitability for a state funeral, but also perhaps hints at the frequent intersection of Christian religion and politics in McCain’s own Republican party.

As a work of Americana, “Simple Gifts” has been performed at presidential inaugurations, including those for Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Most recently and most conspicuously, the melody was heard at Obama’s presidential inauguration in 2009, where composer John Williams premiered a set of variations on “Simple Gifts.” In a rather tepid review of the piece, Washington Post critic Anne Midgette called the work “functional, representational music” that “allowed everyone some downtime before the main event of the oath and the new president's speech. For although it was only four minutes long, a lot of people stopped paying attention and started talking to each other before the music was over.”<11> But the choice of the tune at Obama’s inauguration may have entailed more complex symbolism than was perhaps recognized that day.  In discussing the use of Aaron Copland’s music in Spike Lee’s film He Got Game, for example, Krin Gabbard suggests that by scoring black bodies with Copland’s Americana music, “Lee may be asserting that these African Americans [sic] youths are as uniquely and thoroughly American as anything that Copland’s ballet music might signify.”<12> Performing “Simple Gifts” at Obama’s inauguration achieved a similar effect, persuasively arguing for the Americanness of a black President whose birth certificate was questioned.

After McCain’s death, one video that circulated showed McCain standing up to voters who claimed Barack Obama was Muslim and not American.<13> In this video, McCain performed similar political work as Copland’s music by arguing for the Americanness of his electoral rival. The inclusion of “Simple Gifts” at McCain’s funeral was perhaps similarly symbolic. In light of the music’s connection to Obama’s inauguration, coupled with McCain’s own decision to have President Obama speak at the funeral, the service gestured openly to McCain’s persona as a bipartisan and generous politician. Moreover, the music’s ability to layer identity, from sacred to secular, from Shaker to Protestant, from wartime to peacetime icon, matches McCain’s own mercurial and unpredictable political nature over a long career of service. For many, McCain’s political career may have been a gift, but it was far from simple.

John McCain as War Hero

There are certain musical staples of patriotic events in the United States: “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “My Country, tis of Thee,” “America the Beautiful,” and many, many others. These events commemorate beginnings and endings, and range from somber to celebratory, which means that the music must evoke multiple moods and ideas. Patriotism, after all, encompasses a multifaceted matrix of signs and signifiers. One successful amalgamation of patriotic signifiers is Peter Wilhousky’s 1944 arrangement of Julia Ward Howe and William Steffe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” as orchestrated by Phil Snedecor. The arrangement incorporates a range of patriotic ideas, such that the context of the performance can change or nuance its meaning. A comparison between the arrangement’s performance at President Trump’s inauguration festivities in January 2017 and Senator McCain’s funeral in September 2018 demonstrates how context can define musical signals of patriotism.

Wilhousky and Snedecor’s arrangement provides a wealth of patriotic references and gestures, from the historical to the martial to the religious. While the original song became popular as a musical representation of the Union during the Civil War, the interjections in the second verse clearly recall “Dixie,” the anthem of the Confederacy. Setting those interjections in the piccolo (as most orchestrators do) recalls the fife-and-drum sounds associated with the Revolution. The opening drum rolls and martial bugle reference the nation’s military might—a point of pride for many citizens. The instrumental verse sounds like a John Philip Sousa march, and hymn-like texture in the third verse speaks to the United States’ historical reliance on a Christian moral framework.

By using a variety of patriotic musical markers, Wilhousky and Snedecor created an arrangement that can mean different things in different settings. At Trump’s inauguration, “Battle Hymn” served as the finale to the “Make America Great Again” concert at the Lincoln Memorial the evening before the swearing-in ceremony. In this context, the martial opening of drums and bugle calls called attention to the military might that candidate Trump promised to restore.<14> The “Dixie” interjections of second verse were also striking; on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the references to “Dixie” harmonized seamlessly with the broader context of “Battle Hymn,” speaking to the hope that the nation would come together after a difficult campaign season. Just as the Union reintegrated the Confederacy into the national body politic after the Civil War, the Wilhousky/Snedecor “Battle Hymn” absorbs “Dixie” into its musical framework. Similarly, in his election-night victory speech, President-elect Trump called for the nation “to bind the wounds of division” and “to come together as one united people.”<15>

However, at McCain’s funeral, the Wilhousky/Snedecor “Battle Hymn,” had slightly different connotations. In this context, the third verse stood out. The hymn-like setting recalled “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” sung earlier in the service, an anthem associated with naval servicemen.<16> Combined with the martial drums and bugle calls in the beginning, the moment served as another reminder of McCain’s military career. The celebratory ending of the Wilhousky/Snedecor arrangement also worked in both contexts, but with different signification. The final cries of “glory, glory, hallelujah” signaled triumph and a new beginning at the inaugural concert, but indicated a heavenly ascent at McCain’s funeral. By weaving together a number of complex sounds and ideas, Wilhousky and Snedecor created a flexible arrangement that avoids sounding bland.

Still, despite the myriad themes and ideas this arrangement evokes, its patriotic signifiers may not resonate with all Americans. Although “Battle Hymn” takes its tune from the abolitionist anthem “John Brown’s Body,” this arrangement emphasizes the song’s military pedigree with sounds associated with the predominantly white armies of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars (which is not the case with all arrangements of the song, even from the 1940s). That focus on the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century musical emblems of patriotism also excludes the swaths of citizens whose families arrived in the twentieth- and twenty-first century waves of immigration. And the Christian references in both the lyrics and the music exclude citizens of other or no faith. Even an arrangement as flexible as this has limits.

John McCain as Everyman

McCain listened to the beloved ballad “Danny Boy” on the porch of his Sedona home while he was battling terminal brain cancer and expressed his wish that it be included in his funeral service to his family. He tapped the critically acclaimed American soprano Renée Fleming for this performance following a suggestion made by his former campaign manager and friend Rick Davis.<17> In the days leading up to the funeral, pundits and politicians pondered the late senator’s choice of musical eulogists, as well as other aspects of his funeral plan--Fleming even appeared on CNN’s Inside Politics where she shared her own thoughts on the role of music in national rituals and the meaning of “Danny Boy.

English songwriter and lawyer Frederic Weatherly (1848-1929) penned the words to “Danny Boy” in 1910, the same year he lost both his son and his father (though there is some conjecture over whether the text came before or after these tragic losses). In his memoirs, Piano and Gown (1926), Weatherly credits his sister-in-law with introducing him to “Londonderry Air,” the tune that he eventually paired with his lyrics after reworking them to fit the Irish melody.<18> While the relationship between the song’s narrator and addressee remains ambiguous, and the titular Danny’s destination an enigma, “Londonderry Air” (with “Danny Boy” or other lyrics) has set a somber tone for several high-profile funerals and memorials: Princess Diana’s funeral (as “Air from County Derry” with a text by Howard Arnold Walter; sung by a boy choir); John F. Kennedy’s funeral (as “Londonderry Air” with the text “Above the Hills of Time the Cross Is Gleaming;” sung by the Naval Academy Catholic Choir); and various 9/11 funerals and memorials, including the 2015 memorial in New York City (as “Danny Boy;” performed by flutist Emi Ferguson).

Much like the tune “Danny Boy,” Fleming’s voice has served as the soundtrack for national rituals, including the 9/11 memorial event Concert for America (2002) and We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration (2009). Whether appearing in the Broadway proscenium or the Super Bowl pitch, Rosenkavalier or rock, Late Night with David Letterman or Lord of the Rings—Renée Fleming has deftly occupied an enviable array of positions within the musical world over a career that spans four decades. She dominated the opera scene up until her April 2017 Met farewell, and her crossover performances and collaborations have resulted in an equal amount of critical attention.<19> It is perhaps Fleming’s presence at such events of civic and national importance, penchant for cross-genre collaboration, and well documented approachability and humility that have earned her the title “The People’s Diva.”<20>

Fleming performed lush operatic renderings of “Danny Boy” which in an interview she described as a “nostalgic piece” that she associates with her childhood, at the American Voices Festival concert and she included the song on her album Guilty Pleasures (2013). For the McCain funeral performance Fleming traded lavish orchestration for a more pared down arrangement featuring a string quartet and an accordion, which offered accompaniment in the form of unobtrusive sustained chords, rich with tension-building suspensions in the introduction and interludes. This instrumentation is noteworthy. The string quartet, with its Classical, Western-European roots, carries strong connotations of elitism, gentility, and cultivated taste, while the accordion is more closely aligned with popular, folk, and “ethnic” musics, such as klezmer, Norteño (Mexico) and Cumbia (Colombia). The arrangement begins in C major and then modulates to D major at the interlude between the first and second verses—both keys sitting quite low in the ambitus for a lyric soprano. (In the earlier performances of “Danny Boy” cited above, she chose the much higher key of F.) Fleming uses her belt voice (sometimes with less vibrato) when singing at the bottom of her range and pairs this timbre with vocalisms and phrasing more aligned with musical theatre than opera.<21> When she nears the apex of each verse, the voice seamlessly transitions into the signature, full-blown operatic sound that had made Fleming an international star. The accordion’s judicious sprinkling of grace notes (which mimic the sound of pitch bends) adds a fleeting bluesy sound, while a longer trill salutes the tune’s (and perhaps McCain’s) Irish origins. Like the string quartet-accordion combination, Fleming’s agile shifting between a more musical theatre-esque timbre and an operatic one is notable in that it blurs generic boundaries, and by association, racial, ethnic, and class lines as well.

Fleming’s funeral performance and biography, one might argue, would fall in line with the “symbolic” agenda Lehman described. Throughout his career, McCain was branded a maverick, a non-conformist, and a champion of bipartisanship—a trifecta he reasserted when he voted against the repeal of Obamacare on the Senate floor shortly after receiving his diagnosis. Similarly non-conformist, Fleming, through her chameleon-like reinventions from jazz to opera to rock to musical theater, and her crossover collaborations, pushes against the boundaries of what defines an opera diva in the 21st century. A musical microcosm of these reinventions is woven into her performance of “Danny Boy” with its catalogue of diverse generic signifiers and melding of folkish, popular, and high classical-style timbres. Fleming’s recent excursions on the Great White Way, both with Living On Love (2015) and Carousel (2018), and the music theatre-styled singing in parts of “Danny Boy,” align her with mass culture, the vox populi, and perhaps give a nod to the musical’s defining role in the maintenance of American identity.<22>  John McCain similarly laid claim to everyman status, and in one interview even presented his lack of musical taste as evidence of this stature.<23> Last, with her “anti-diva” persona and the simplicity of expression that defines her stripped down performance of “Danny Boy,” Fleming becomes the perfect musical counterpart for the plainspoken McCain, who referred to his 2008 campaign bus as the Straight Talk Express.

Politicians and journalists alike viewed McCain’s funeral as a rebuke of the current president and his policies.  Considering the unadorned simplicity, contemplative nostalgia, and harmonious coexistence of generic markers in Renée Fleming’s “Danny Boy,” perhaps we can argue that her performance mounted an analogous critique in sound as its reminded mourners of Meghan McCain’s eulogy: “The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America was always great.”

John McCain as Patriot

After the concluding prayers, the singing of the anthemic “America the Beautiful,” and the Commendation, Blessing, and Dismissal—standard components at the end of a funeral service—participants and outside observers heard instrumental music for the Recessional that stood out for its unfamiliarity. The internet was ablaze with queries about the music’s identity, like this one posted on Quora: “What was that weird song at the McCain funeral?” A number of similar inquiries went out on Reddit, Facebook, and Twitter, and even the “Talk Classical” social media site featured a question about the title. Those who recognized the tune variously labeled it, according to their personal histories with the music. The funeral program called it “’The Jupiter Hymn’ from The Planets, Gustav Holst; arr. D.J. Miller.”

The Recessional—performed by the Navy Band Brass Ensemble—was indeed music originally from Holst’s The Planets: more specifically the theme from the middle section of the movement entitled “Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity.” A segment of the public who did recognize the original source of the melody expressed on various social media platforms the widest possible range of responses, from admiration—“Love ‘Jupiter’ from The Planets for the recessional”—to ironic bemusement—“Jupiter represents Zeus, the ruler of Mount Olympus…Just one more insult directed at the ignoramus in the White House.” Certain commentators recognized the music under the title “I Vow to Thee, My Country,” from the first line of a hymn that used the music from “Jupiter.”

The historical context for “I Vow to Thee, My Country” illuminates the probable rationale for its inclusion in McCain’s funeral service. Around 1910, British diplomat Cecil Spring Rice wrote the poem Urbs Dei that combined patriotic and sacred modes of thought in a hymn to country and faith. Holst set it in 1921 to the tune from “Jupiter,” which in the meantime has come to be known as “Thaxted,” from the village where Holst resided for much of his life. By featuring this selection, McCain’s funeral stands in a long tradition: since 1921 the hymn has been performed at Remembrance Day commemorations throughout the Commonwealth, Princess Diana had it sung at her wedding in 1981 (and it was performed at her funeral in 1997), and it stood on the Order of Service for the funeral of Margaret Thatcher in 2013.

The words to the hymn, unsung at the funeral, reflect a strongly nationalist pride, an equation of country with belief that caused one Anglican cleric to call it “obscene, offensive and unfit to be sung by Christians.” Here are the first four lines of each of the poem’s two stanzas, which clearly present the opposition between earthly and heavenly kingdoms:

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best…

And there's another country, I've heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering…

While the cleric’s objections may be justified on theological grounds, the text is not exceptional for British patriotic hymnody from the era of the First World War, which had called forth such poems as “For the Fallen” and “In Flanders Fields.” The phrases in “I Vow to Thee, My Country” that call for unquestioning duty and accepting the willing sacrifice of the “dearest and the best” accorded well with McCain’s own views on the relationship between love for country and military service.

So the choice of this music was no aggrandizing or satirical gesture on the part of John McCain, but rather one based on traditional values of country and faith. As his final words to the assembly and, indeed, to the viewing world, the hymn is not irrelevant to understanding the man and how he viewed his legacy.

A Complicated Legacy

As complex as a state funeral can be, matters become even more complicated when it honors a person as multifaceted as John McCain. One aspect of his public persona was curiously absent from the musical soundscape: maverick. Although he specifically requested eulogies from his political opponents, nothing in the musical selections spoke to his penchant for bucking convention or his life outside public service. Instead, the music emphasized only his heroism, religious devotion, simplicity, and patriotism, so that by the end of the service, John McCain the myth had washed away John McCain the man. His complex legacy on military intervention and civil rights appeared inconsequential in light of the grandeur of the event. Little of the music spoke to his “mischievous” sense of humor (according to Barack Obama), or his love of ABBA.<24> In other words, the details that made him human rather than the larger-than-life figure he became were absent from the service.

Just as the funeral only emphasized a few aspects of McCain’s complex life, the music only represented a very small part of John McCain’s America. The musical selections at this state funeral reflected the idea that “The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America was always great.” And indeed, the funeral was suffused with sounds from America’s heroic past: military brass bands, simple folk songs, and solemn hymns. The impression was of a heroic (yet humble), white, Christian man representing a heroic (yet humble), white, Christian nation. Still, neither America nor John McCain can be reduced to such simple, overarching concepts. McCain represented the diverse state of Arizona, along with an America that was always more than just our military, our majority ethnicity, and our majority religion. Funerals are myth-making opportunities, and the musical stories we tell ourselves about our past inevitably shape our future. Hopefully, McCain’s (and the country’s) complexities will endure beyond the service.
<1> Michael D. Shear and Katie Rogers, “How McCain Got the Last Word Against Trump,” New York Times, August 28, 2018,
<2> Ibid.
<3> See Susan Glasser, “John McCain’s Funeral Was the Biggest Resistance Meeting Yet,” The New Yorker, September 1, 2018,; Martie Sirois, “John McCain Died, But America May Have Been Reborn,” The Medium, September 2, 2018,; and Courtney Weaver, “McCain Funeral Delivers a Two-and-a-half Hour Rebuke of Trump,” Financial Times, September 1, 2018,
<4> For a complete list of the music performed at the funeral and the timings that indicate where it occurs in the above video, see the following chart.

<5> Roger Lee Hall, “‘Simple Gifts’: The Discovery and Popularity of a Shaker Dance Song,” Communal Societies 36, no. 2 (2016): 108.
<6> Annegret Fauser, Sounds of War: Music in the United States during World War II (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 150. See also Chapter Four of Fauser, Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).
<7> “Copland and the American Sound,” Public Broadcasting System, (accessed December 3, 2018).
<8> “Read: Sen. John McCain’s Farewell Statement,” Cable News Network, last modified August 27, 2018,
<9> Hall, “Simple Gifts,” 100.
<10> For a more thorough look at how McCain’s bipartisan, “maverick” record evolved over time, see Clare Malone, “John McCain Was A Maverick—And A Politician,” FiveThirtyEight, August 25, 2018,
<11> Anne Midgette, “Music Review: John Williams’s ‘Air and Simple Gifts’ at the Obama Inauguration,” Washington Post, January 21, 2009,
<12> Krin Gabbard, “Race and Reappropriation: Spike Lee Meets Aaron Copland,” American Music 18, no. 4 (2000): 372.
<13> Emily Stewart, “Watch John McCain Defend Barack Obama Against a Racist Voter in 2008,” Vox, last updated September 1, 2018,
<14> See for example Ashley Parker and Matthew Rosenberg, “Donald Trump Vows to Bolster Nation’s Military Capacities,” New York Times, September 7, 2016,
<15> “Transcript: Donald Trump’s Victory Speech,” New York Times, November 9, 2016,
<16> “The Navy Hymn: Eternal Father Strong to Save,” Naval History and Heritage Command,
<17> Dana Bash, “Opera's Renee Fleming 'Touched' to be Singing ‘Danny Boy’ at John McCain's Funeral,” CNN, August 31, 2018,
<18> Anthony Mann, In Sunshine and in Shadow: The Family Story of Danny Boy,, 2013. This book was written by Weatherly’s great-grandson, but it is self-published, and from what I can tell, some of the details are contradicted in other sources. This source may not be wholly reliable.
<19> For example, Fleming spearheaded the American Voices Festival (2013), which brought singers representing the genres of pop, country, jazz, gospel, broadway, and classical song together for a series of workshops, masterclasses and a performance at the Kennedy Center.
<20> Charles McGrath, “The Diva Departs: Renée Fleming’s Farewell to Opera,” New York Times, April 5, 2017,
<21> From its beginnings on Broadway to the present, belting has been associated with the communication of strong emotion. The actual physical characteristics of “belting” are somewhat contested among vocal pedagogues, but suffice to say for our purposes here, the belt sound is distinct from classical singing. See Christianne Knauer Roll, “Female Musical Theatre Belting in the 21st Century: A Study of the Pedagogy of the Vocal Practice and Performance” (PhD diss., Columbia University, 2014), 1-6.
<22> See Raymond Knapp, The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005).
<23> During the 2008 campaign McCain responded to critics who derided his love of ABBA with the following remarks: “If there is anything I am lacking in, I’ve got to tell you, it is taste in music and art and other great things in life. I’ve got to say that a lot of my taste in music stopped about the time I impacted a surface-to-air missile with my own airplane and never caught up again.” See Peter Hamby, “McCain Rises to ABBA’s Defense,” CNN Political Ticker (blog), CNN, August 15, 2008,
<24> See for example All Things Considered, “Music Picks from Obama, McCain,” NPR, August 12, 2008,

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

El Tricentenario: The Music of San Antonio’s 300th Anniversary

By Stefan Greenfield-Casas

San Antonio, TX. Best known as the home of the Alamo, the Spurs, and some of (if not the) best breakfast tacos in the US.<1> (It is also, incidentally, the meeting place of this year’s joint meeting between the American Musicological Society and the Society for Music Theory). The city is currently celebrating its 300th anniversary, and with this Tricentennial have come myriad artistic and cultural projects commissioned by the city to celebrate its rich heritage. Music has been no exception, and a number of pieces have been written in honor of the city’s founding. Drawing on interviews conducted during summer 2018, this essay examines a few of these pieces, especially those connected to two prominent San Antonian artists: composer Ethan Wickman and poet John Phillip Santos.<2>

The origins of these musical projects extend back a few years prior to the Tricentennial with Ethan Wickman’s cantata, Ballads of the Borderlands. Though not officially affiliated with the city’s anniversary at its premiere in February of 2017, the piece still celebrated the history and mythos of San Antonio. For the work, Wickman drew on texts from San Antonian poets, including Carmen Tafolla (San Antonio’s first poet laureate) and John Phillip Santos.<3> When asked how he chose these works, Wickman responded that he was looking for texts that dealt with “identity and assimilation,” but which would also lend themselves to a “mythical, spiritual” narrative. Upon reading Santos’ poem “La Ruta,” Wickman felt an instant connection: “He was thinking on a plane that I was just imagining musically.”<4>

This collaboration between Santos and Wickman led to a Tricentennial event centered around the creative process of Ballads of the Borderland. The two were given a grant by the city to commission other artists to create similarly collaborative pieces. This resulted in the Ballads Educational Initiative, which involved both a mentorship program, as well as the composition of three new songs for San Antonio’s SOLI Chamber Ensemble and the mezzo-soprano Tynan Davis.<5> The songs were created by pairs of UTSA students (San Antonio’s next generation of artists), with texts written by creative writing majors and set by composition majors. The pairings of students included Letslie Aguirre (music) and Eric Pitty (text); Jamail Chachere (music) and Fernanda Covarrubias (text); and Angelo Salgado (music) and Daniela Riojas (text). Wickman envisioned a kind of familial documentary process in these works: “how can your family stories inspire something you make?” Yet, according to the students, they were empowered to adapt this prompt as they saw fit. Riojas, for instance, noted they could connect it “to whatever we wanted to talk about or express in terms of our experience living here or experience even in south Texas or speaking to… the desert landscapes.” How each pair (and indeed, each individual) approached their original piece speaks to their unique stories.

Pitty’s poem for his and Aguirre’s piece, “Dead Horse,” was based on his experiences with death while living in rural south Texas: from the eponymous dead horse, to the abandoned infrastructure and mass murders in and around the town in which he was raised. Pitty noted that he “wanted the landscape itself to serve as a connection between so many painful stories.” To match this feeling, Aguirre composed the music in Messaien’s 7th mode of limited transposition. She noted that even within this framework, she was frequently employing extended tertian chords, and that “even without a pitch center, I kept coming back to an E-flat augmented 7th chord as if it were a chord of resolution.” The two also decided to include a (musical) quote from a border song: “Tragos de Amargo Licor” by the Norteño artist Ramón Ayala.

In contrast to the arid imagery of death and decay in “Dead Horse,” Covarrubias’ poem, “Madre Azul,” tells the tale of a primordial and mythic mother-character. She stated that “I wanted to create a piece where time is not linear, the narrative... of this mother is not linear, where the past, present, and future all coexist and interact with each other in this common space agua… I wanted to demonstrate the idea of how migration is a birth on its own, and how birth can occur at any point. Water is a life source for all, whether that be physical, spiritual, or giving us a chance at a new life.” Though Chachere’s setting of the text is predominantly tonal, the piece cycles through no less than five tonal centers, harmonically suggesting the fluidity of water, of time, and of (familial) migration.

The last piece in this trio of works, “La Tierra de San Antonio,” was created by Angelo Salgado and Daniela Riojas. Similarly to Covarrubias’ text, Riojas’ poem deals with notions of time. She draws attention not only to the 300 years of San Antonio-as-city’s existence, but also to “the land” and “the indigenous people before us… There’s a sacredness here, and if we can pray to that while we celebrate today, then we can sort of move forward more consciously with the two hand in hand.” The process of composition for this piece was somewhat different than that of the other two, in large part because Riojas is the lead singer of the genre-eluding band Femina-X, and brought her experience as band member to the collaboration.[<6> While Salgado (a member of another local band, Mírame) composed the majority of the piece, Riojas contributed her own musical ideas to certain sections which Salgado then incorporated into the composition. Salgado noted in an email that Riojas “having a musical background helped a lot in communicating what sonic soundscapes we wanted to create. Daniela even participated in the creation of the music, she would send me recordings of her singing melodies to the text she wrote and [I] would transcribe it and put it in the piece.” Likely because of the collaborative nature of composition between band members, this level of musical collaboration seemed typical to Riojas (and indeed she seemed surprised when I suggested their piece was unusual in this regard).

These three pieces were premiered at the Institute of Texan Cultures on March 25th, 2018 as part of the Ballads of the Borderland concert series. There was an additional encore performance (which also featured Wickman’s cantata) held at the Basilica of the Little Flower just two days later.

Outside of his collaborations with Wickman, Santos was also asked by the city to write the libretto for an opera dedicated to the newly restored San Pedro Creek. Though he joked that all the operas he had attended “were either by Pete Townsend or Andrew Lloyd Webber,” Santos was familiar enough with LA-based composer Joseph Julian Gonzalez’s Misa Azteca (1997) to approach the composer to write the music: “He was really literate [in the operatic tradition]—an expert in symphonic writing. So he was the natural person to [approach].”<7> The collaboration with Gonzalez (as well as Gonzalez’ wife, Monique Gonzalez) led to the creation of Las Fundaciones de Béjar: A Mythic Opera on the Founding of San Antonio de Béxar. The first act of the opera was premiered on September 8th, 2016; it features a Wagnerian sabor regarding its narrative: a kind of creation myth about the creek’s deity (the “Lady of the Creek”) and her relation to the mortals who would settle on her banks.<8> As a whole, Santos noted that the opera “is very much about origins and early emergence.” The rest of the opera is planned to be premiered sometime this year.

Other musical projects for the Tricentennial outside of Wickman and Santos’ projects and collaborations include works by James Syler and George Cisneros. Syler was commissioned by the San Antonio Choral Society to write El Camino de las Misiones (premiered on May 20th, 2018 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower). The five-movement work musically explores the five Spanish missions in San Antonio (of which the Alamo is most likely to be “remembered”). Outside of the concert hall, musician George Cisneros has a sound and video installation entitled “The Cacophony” currently on display (on loop) at The Witte Museum. The piece, described as a tone poem, is comprised of recordings Cisneros has taken all throughout San Antonio, played across 16 channels, along with six video projections. In my own time listening to the installation, I heard everything from songs of prayer to the roar of planes flying overhead; ringing church bells to a solo violin—not to mention the sounds of guests of the museum walking through the installation, talking amongst themselves.<9>

Early in his first memoir, Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation, John Phillip Santos poses a set of quasi-rhetorical questions: “Where did our forebears come from and what have we amounted to in this world? Where have we come to in the span of all time, and where are we headed, like an arrow shot long ago into infinite empty space? What messages and markings of the ancient past do we carry in these handed-down bodies we live in today?”<10> Many of the pieces written for San Antonio’s Tricentennial have similar preoccupations. They meditate on, elaborate upon, question, and critique the histories and myths of San Antonio and South Texas. Though there is a definite awareness of the past in these projects—from the familial and familiar to the ancestral and mythic—there is also a focus on the future of San Antonio in the hands of its buddings artists. Though the arrow of Santos’ forebears was “shot long ago,” it continues on through the legacy of its next generation, simultaneously bound up with(in) the past, present, and future.

<1>Unlike their northern neighbor-city, Austin—which has joked about growing breakfast tacos in a lab—San Antonio takes the quality of its breakfast tacos quite seriously.
<2>In addition to his writings (both poetic and prosaic), Santos has worked as a documentary film maker, a “South Texas Geomancer,” and is currently the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Distinguished Scholar in Mestizo Studies. He was also the 2017 Texas Medal of Arts in Literature honoree.
<3>Both poets came at the suggestion of one of Wickman’s colleagues in the English department at UTSA.
<4>See John Phillip Santos, “La Ruta,” in Songs Older Than Any Known Singer: Selected and New Poems, 1974-2006 (San Antonio: Wings Press, 2008), 108. This poem would eventually become the text for the second movement of Wickman’s Ballads (the first movement with text).
<5>These musicians were among the core performers who premiered Wickman’s cantata in 2016.
<6>Riojas is a multidisciplinary artist, focusing not only on writing and music, but also photography and performance as well. Indeed, while not officially associated with the Tricentennial, Riojas’s band has released two music videos this year focusing on San Antonio—both its mythic past (“Black Tongue”) and historical present (“Las Caderas”).
<7>It might be worth noting that Santos had not yet met Wickman when he was asked to take on this project.
<8>Though not premiered in 2018, Santos noted the premiere was still considered a Tricentennial event, suggesting a kind of “long Tricentennial.”
<9>Specific compositions that were imported included the Star-Spangled Banner, Amazing Grace, The Yellow Rose of Texas, and “Is Anybody Going to San Antone?”
<10>John Phillip Santos, Places Left Finished at the Time of Creation (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), 9.

Stefan Greenfield-Casas grew up in San Antonio, TX. He holds a BMus with Highest Honors from the University of Texas at San Antonio, an MM in music theory from The University of Texas at Austin, and is currently a PhD student in music theory and cognition at Northwestern University. His research interests include ludomusicology, critical theory, and the relationship between music, myth, and (pop/mass/trans-)media epics. He has previously presented on these topics (amongst others) at a number of conferences, including meetings of the Texas Society for Music Theory, Music and the Moving Image, and the North American Conference on Video Game Music.