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Music: Kennedy’s Cantata

2 minute read

On cue, the baritone stepped to the microphone patiently waited out a fanfare of trumpets, horns, trombones and drums, and lifted his voice in song:

My fellow citizens

We observe today

Not a victory of party

But a celebration of freedom . . .

The text was familiar: that notable Irish Baritone John F. Kennedy had delivered it in its entirety in Washington on Jan. 20, 1961. Set to music by Composer Russell Danburg, 55, and given its premiere at the University of Florida last week, the Kennedy inaugural address took 55 minutes to perform (Jack Kennedy himself took 14), called for a 70-piece orchestra and more than 300 choristers. Critics agreed that though Kennedy had been eminently satisfactory in his solo effort, the choral reprise made rewarding song.

The twelve-movement cantata is distinguished by a close welding of sound to thought. Thus the line “Born in this century, tempered by war” calls forth a burst of clanging dissonance, in contrast to the exalted harmonies of the words “Disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage.” Occasionally, the attempt to link music and words—as in a sudden intrusion of primitive drumbeats for the phrase “To those peoples in the huts and villages”—upsets the continuity. But for the most part, it is tightly knit and moving. Says Composer Danburg: “It is strictly nonpartisan.”

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