John Williams goes west:
In January of 1980, the famous American film music composer John Williams was named conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra. On today’s date that year he led his new orchestra in the premiere performance of this music, his own Overture to “The Cowboys.” This concert overture was based on material from Williams’ score for a John Wayne film entitled “The Cowboys.” Now, John Williams has scored dozens and dozens of classic American films, but not all that many westerns. “The Cowboys,” from 1971, for one, and “Missouri Breaks,” a quirky 1976 Western starring Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando, for another. If both “The Cowboys” and “Missouri Breaks” are somewhat unconventional samples of the Western genre, Williams’ music is in the grand tradition of the classic film scores by Jerome Moross, who composed the music for “The Big Sky,” Elmer Bernstein, who wrote the score for “The Magnificent Seven,” and Jerry Goldsmith, who has done that service for a number of other classic Westerns. All these composers, however, owed a collective debt to an unlikely cowboy music composer: Brooklyn-born Aaron Copland, whose “Billy the Kid” and “Rodeo” ballet scores from the 1930s and 40s helped define the symphonic equivalent of the wide-open American landscape.

Bernstein gets political:
In 1968, Senator Eugene McCarthy was running for President on an anti-war platform. The war in question was in Southeast Asia, and many American artists were, like Senator McCarthy, openly calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam. On today’s date at a New York fundraising event for the anti-war movement entitled “Broadway for Peace,” this music by Leonard Bernstein received its premiere performance, with the composer at the piano accompanying Barbra Streisand. The song was titled “So Pretty,” with lyrics describing the tragedy of the Vietnam War from a child’s point of view. Richard Nixon, not Eugene McCarthy, became President in 1968, and was re-elected in 1972. At Nixon’s special request, the final piece on his January, 1973 Inaugural Concert was Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” which struck many at the time as a deliberately bellicose selection, considering that the Vietnam War was still raging. As a protest, Bernstein, McCarthy and others arranged a counter-concert at Washington’s National Cathedral, scheduled at precisely the same time as Nixon’s, but presenting Haydn’s “Mass in Time of War” instead of Tchaikovsky. Three thousand people crowded into the Cathedral, and another twelve thousand stood outside in the wind and rain. Whether the music of Tchaikovsky or Haydn ultimately made any difference in resolving the conflict, history does note that a Southeastern Asian armistice was signed in Paris a few days later.

Kirkpatrick plays Ives:
On today’s date in 1939, pianist John Kirkpatrick gave a recital at Town Hall in New York City. First up on his program was a piano sonata by Beethoven, which was followed by the New York premiere of the complete “Concord” Sonata by the American composer Charles Ives. Ives had self-published his “Concord” Sonata some 20 years earlier, and sent dozens of copies of it free to anyone he thought might be interested. Apparently, one recipient was Rubin Goldmark, who, in 1921, was giving composition lessons to the young Aaron Copland. Copland recalled seeing a copy of the Concord Sonata on Goldmark’s piano, but was not allowed to borrow it. “You stay away from it,” Goldmark warned him. “I don’t want you to be contaminated by stuff like that.” In 1934, John Kirkpatrick saw a copy of the “Concord Sonata” in Paris, and wrote Ives: “I have decided quite resolutely to learn the whole sonata.” It would take him five years, but Kirkpatrick’s Town Hall recital would put both him and Ives on the map. A New York Times critic wrote, “This sonata is exceptionally great music—it is, indeed, the greatest music composed by an American, and the most deeply felt and essential... Kirkpatrick’s performance was that of a poet and a master, an unobtrusive minister of genius.”

Quintessential Verdi:
On today’s date in 1853, Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “Il Trovatore” (or “The Troubador”) had its premiere performance at the Teatro Apollo in Rome. It proved an immediate hit. True, some did complain at the time about its gloomy, complicated and downright confusing plot. But Verdi’s music setting had such great tunes and such energetic verve that “Il Trovatore” quickly became the most popular of all his operas in the 19th century. Its tunes were soon heard emanating from street corner barrel-organs, and, as a true sign of popularity, there were even comic parodies of its melodramatic blood and thunder story-line. Reviewing an early New York production in 1862, the American composer and music critic William Fry had these observations: “Il Trovatore has a wonderful plot, beyond human comprehension... As to the music, there are some charming, popular, ingenious, artistic, great points; then, there are some others egregiously vulgar and rowdy. The Anvil Chorus, for example, is about equal to a scene of mending a sewer set to music.” And as for parodies, these were not confined to the 19th century. In the 1935 film, “A Night at the Opera,” Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” and opera in general receive a devastating send-up at the hands of the four Marx Brothers.

Stravinsky and J.F.K.:
On today’s date in 1962, President John F. Kennedy received two memos regarding a dinner party at the White House scheduled the following evening honoring composer Igor Stravinsky and his wife, Vera. The Kennedys were famous for inviting the finest artists and performers to the White House for special presentations. Mrs. Kennedy was a true arts maven, but JFK was not, and needed background information on figures like Stravinsky, which the first memo provided. The Kennedy’s Social Secretary even worked out secret signals and cues for the President when he attended White House recitals so he wouldn’t applaud at the wrong time. Stravinsky was in Washington to conduct some performances of his oratorio “Oedipus Rex,” and earlier that week Secretary of State Dean Rusk had hosted a reception for Stravinsky and presented him with a medal of achievement. The second memo informed JFK that after a photo shoot with the Stravinskys, they would join the others invited that evening for cocktails in the Blue Room. After dinner, Stravinsky expressed his gratitude and told the press that the Kennedys were “nice kids.” Four months after President Kennedy’s assassination in November of 1963, Stravinsky asked poet W.H. Auden for “a very quiet little lyric” that he might set to music in tribute to Kennedy’s memory. The resulting work, “Elegy for J.F.K.” for medium voice and three clarinets, premiered on April 6, 1964, at the Monday Evening Concerts in Santa Monica, California.