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< 21st century music | Main | The Leos and Ludwig Chain >

John Williams' new piece for the Inauguration

Posted at 1:11 PM on January 20, 2009 by Fred Child (23 Comments)

I'd hazard a guess that no piece of classical music ever premiered for a bigger audience. (I dunno, does the piece Lang Lang played at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics qualify as "classical"?)

John Williams wrote "Air and Simple Gifts" for the inauguration of Barack Obama. And the premiere had pride of place, right before the swearing-in of our new President, at about three minutes before noon on Tuesday.

In fact, since the ceremonies were running about five minutes behind schedule, Obama officially became President while "Air and Simple Gifts" was playing. Even though he hadn't yet taken the oath of office, Barack Omaba officially became president at noon on January 20th.

The piece was played by violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Gabriela Montero, and clarinetist Anthony McGill. (As Alex Ross points out, that's the same instrumentation as Olivier Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time." More than one Obama fan nicknamed this piece "Quartet for the Beginning of Time.")

You can listen to my interview with Anthony McGill about the inauguration by clicking here.

It was about 28 degrees, with 20 mph gusts when they played...notice Gabriela's fingerless gloves? Nice shot of them at 1:54 in the video.

Wide range of opinions on the piece in early reviews: Mark Swed wrote in the LA Times that the piece was "hokey." Anthony Tommasini wrote in the NY Times that Williams "got the mood right" with a piece that was "stylish and appealing."

According to the New York Times, Yo-Yo Ma had planned to play a sleek black carbon-fiber cello because of the cold...he apparantly changed his mind!


My colleague at NPR, Anya Grundmann, was standing in the chilly DC air at the inauguration, and wrote this in a wonderful musical dispatch on the event:

"Yo-Yo Ma's cello, Itzhak Perlman's violin, Anthony McGill's clarinet and Gabriela Montero's piano each held the melody then layered it, twisting and curling out over the suddenly calming crowd. A man behind us remarked that a flock of birds seemed to be soaring along with the music. For a moment everyone looked up."

Comments ( 23 )

It sounded a lot like "I Am the Lord of the Dance" in many spots. Was that intentional?

Posted by wcSmith | January 21, 2009 8:21 AM

For me this was one of the highlights of the inaugural. Its pensive thoughtful start, its joyous middle, and its quiet end, all wrapped around the message that it is in the simple things that we experience and dwell in the energy that binds all things together was stupendous. As it was being played 12 noon passed and Barak Obama became our president. Marvelous!

Posted by David | January 21, 2009 8:26 AM

Tis "composition" is nothing more than an arrangement of "Lord of the Dance" adapted by Sydney Carter 1963 based on the 19th cent. Shaker tune. It is interesting that this is a Christian tune and those outraged by Warren's mention of Jesus might be outraged. Personally, this is one of my favorite hyms.

Posted by Alison McIntire | January 21, 2009 8:27 AM


You heard the tune of "Lord of the Dance," and yes, that was intentional. Lord of the Dance is, as Alison points out, based on the old Shaker tune "Simple Gifts." (Notice Wiliams' title "Air and Simple Gifts.") Nothing wrong with using a familiar tune as the basis for variations, and to be fair, Williams did add his own theme (the "Air" that opens the piece, and comes back toward the end), and blend it with the theme of "Simple Gifts."

Posted by Fred Child | January 21, 2009 9:26 AM

As I watched the musicians playing yesterday, I was struck by how they reflected who we are as a country in their diverse ethnic backgrounds, ages, and life stories. And since John Williams is as close to a living national composer as anyone, it was such a fitting offering for this historic day. I was mesmerized and so touched by the music and the occasion. One of my favorite tunes in a beautiful variation! And can anyone be more joyful in their playing than Mr. Ma?

Posted by Karen Kagiyama | January 21, 2009 10:03 AM

I thought the opening clarinet lines were exquisitely played by Anthony McGill. That was the musical highlight of the performance for me, although I was delighted by it all, and especially thrilled that classical music, and some pre-eminent classical artists were given such a central stage for their art. It portends good things!

Posted by Maureen O'Connor | January 21, 2009 6:45 PM

Iwas astounded to hear this marvelous rendition introduced as an original composition.

As much a genius as is John Williams, he like Aaron Copeland and others have adapted this Shaker Hymn. The announcer clearly said "ARRANGED by John Williams>" The musical citation was far to long to be a borrowed motif.

Fred Child: why not ask John since you yourself are such an authority (I always step back a couple of measures whenever anyone allows himself to be an authority) and can just ring him up!!

Robert Pearson M.D.
life long music lover opera goer but no authority.

Posted by Robert Pearson | January 21, 2009 7:59 PM

Thanks for the opportunity of an undisturbed hearing of this piece, which I thought was entirely fitting for the occasion. I'm ashamed to say that our esteemed BBC allowed its presenters to talk over about the first quarter of it. Considering the international renown of the composer/arranger and the instrumentalists involved, that was unbelievable; but that's television for you. As they frequently say, the pictures on radio are far better! (I don't expect you to comment - you're far too polite to malign a fellow broadcaster.)

Anyway, congratulations on an exciting new beginning in US history.

Graham Grafton, Essex, England.

Posted by Graham Grafton | January 22, 2009 4:37 AM

I took pride in hearing these renown musicians play together in front of such a crowd of people, the piece and the moment were very moving. SImple Gifts always brings a tear to my eye as it makes me reflect on the lyrics and what we have to be thankful for in this country.

Posted by Meredith | January 22, 2009 7:25 AM

"that the piece was "hokey."

This was powerful, beautiful and played by incredible musicians on a historic day filled with hope. This "reviewer" probably didn't even bother to watch. It's apparent that they have no musical inclination.

That is the most seriously impaired review I've ever heard about.

Posted by Jim Lange | January 22, 2009 9:28 AM

I just loved the piece "Air and Special Gifts" and listen to MPR every day from Northern VA. Could you tell us when it will be available on CD?

Thanks, Lisa

Posted by lisa | January 22, 2009 1:00 PM

This musical moment capsulized an event we all
anticipated as historic and grand beyond expections. I was not disappointed. In fact, I think its timing in the ceremony and the message of the music was sheer perfection. My heart soared with every note, the sweetness, the sometimes familiar, ( at such rare moments only Copeland can do) the feeling of a bird finding its feet before its wings swept me away. I have replayed this presentation dozens of times since. With and without the visual. I have to say, absorbing the rapture of YoYo's exhuberance as he played.... affectionately and eagerly looking to engage in that collaborative instant with Itzak and Anthony to his sides was breathtaking.
For an event (the inauguration of Obama) not to be described by words, it was done so by four brilliant musicians by the grace and genius of John Williams.

Posted by Jeanne | January 22, 2009 7:02 PM

LATE BREAKING NEWS! The inaugural performance wasn't what we heard on the air - it was the tape from the day before:


Personally, I'm kind of shocked at how good the timing is in those shots. I was looking for some out of sync fingering on the day of, but I couldn't detect anything. (maybe Montero? But I thought Yo-Yo was as live as Oscar night.)

Next we're going to hear that the inaugural reviewing stand was greenscreened in later!

I'm so disillusioned.

Posted by Alex Coppock | January 22, 2009 8:32 PM

I'd not heard anything by John Williams like this. Wish he'd write more for small ensemble. I was amazed at how good the tuning was, considering the temperature. The contemplative air truly set a mood for what was to follow (the oath and speech by our new President) in a way I loved. I noted, where I was, that many folks don't "get" this sort of contemplative music, seeing it as "boring." So glad for the chance to hear it again in private. What a wonderful moment for our country!

Posted by Ken Cothran | January 22, 2009 8:41 PM

Ken Cothran, I see you're right to be amazed.

Has there been a previous known case of classical musicians synching to a tape? I find that a little disturbing, especially in a ceremony that's supposed to "augur" well for a new presidency.

Maybe the mistake was scheduling a classical performance for an outdoor ceremony in January.

As for the piece, if the goal was to have something original, using "Simple Gifts" as Americana isn't very original. Williams could at least have found a folk song that hasn't been played in car commercials. I choked up a couple times while listening to the inauguration, but not during that piece.

Posted by Jerry Friedman | January 23, 2009 12:35 PM

I was having trouble imagining how they could play in that weather, and wondered if they would dare to bring their best instruments out in that cold (they didn't). Anyone who has ever played a string instrument would know how difficult it is to play in cold, not to mention frigid temperatures. I don't think there is anything wrong in playing along with a tape. (They were actually playing, not just pretending - but the music over the sound system was pre-recorded). Many composers use(d) common folk tunes as the basis for a composition. It was lovely and appropriate I think.

Posted by Wynne Wilbur | January 23, 2009 1:03 PM

Did anyone have a chance to read the front page article in the NY Times today on how the John Williams piece was actually pre-recorded ahead of time? I loved hearing the piece (which I thought was a gorgeous interpretation of and variation on Simple Gifts), and I enjoyed seeing all four performers play it as I watched the inauguration on tv, but I must say--like a few of the previous persons posting here--that I was disappointed to find out that what I heard was *not* those performers' actual playing of the piece at that moment in time.

It seems as if something authentic was lost in their playing along with a pre-recorded version of the piece on inauguration day. Fred and company, what do you think of this? What is lost in a performance when the music is pre-recorded ahead of time and the performers play along "live" with it, but their "live" music isn't what is being experienced/heard by the audience?

Posted by Catherine | January 23, 2009 7:19 PM

I too read that they were actually playing, but Yo-Yo Ma was interviewed on All Things Considered this evening, and he said they weren't--there was soap on his bow so it slid over the strings without making sound, a technician had decoupled the piano keyboard from the hammers, etc.

Posted by Jerry Friedman | January 24, 2009 12:34 AM

Fellow Fredliners,

Check out this cool wide shot of the inauguration. It should load in your browser and then zoom to Yo-Yo...


It's pretty funny.

Posted by Alex Coppock | January 24, 2009 10:19 PM

I commented to my daughter on Inauguration Day that I couldn't see how the musicians could keep their instruments in tune in the cold. Turns out they couldn't. No surprise there. It's physics, after all.

The same quartet who recorded the tape synced to it, acknowledging difficult circumstances. No doubt they did not want anything less than their best for the occasion, so having a previously-laid-down tape turned out to be a wise precaution.

I see no issue here.

Posted by Leemikcee | January 26, 2009 10:32 AM

I would rather have this played in its place of prominence than not played because of weather. Without that foresight, no doubt this would have been omitted from the planning because of the potential to not be able to present it. Planners would probably take the "better safe than sorry" position. The presence of this group at such a moment demonstrates that "classical" music has a place in the life of this nation.

Posted by jean | January 26, 2009 12:38 PM

I wish I had 10% of the skill of either Mr. Perlman or Mr. Ma. It seems quite reasonable not to attempt a live performance under the conditions at the inaguration. As Leemikcee states above, "it's the physics of the thing".

I think this is a press created to-do,and much-ado-about little. The music was great, recorded; live it could have been a disaster. The disaster was averted (good prevention IMHO).

Too bad both Mrs Perlman and Ma didn't use carbon fiber instruments. At least we'd all have something interesting to talk about.

Posted by EPIMAN of the frigid north | January 26, 2009 3:43 PM

Remember the Summer Olympics in China?

There were a lot of non-standard tweaks to that grandiose performance too.

Posted by Tom | January 28, 2009 6:31 PM

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