By DANIEL J. WAKIN
Published: September 12, 2008
A HAUNTED tenor voice will sing out in Dallas on Thursday. It will
lament that a terrible war was based on a hollow threat, and that
millions might have died because of a "mistake."
The Dallas Symphony Orchestra wanted a grand piece of music to
commemorate Lyndon B. Johnson, born 100 years ago, and it may have
gotten more than it bargained for: a 70-minute oratorio with implicit
reverberations about another war propelled by faulty intelligence,
prosecuted by another Texan.
The work, "August 4, 1964," composed by Steven Stucky to a libretto
by Gene Scheer, is based on a single day in Johnson's presidency, and
it joins a genre of classical music rife with worthy intentions and
inherent risks: compositions that address current or recent events.
On that date Johnson told the American people that North Vietnamese
forces had attacked a United States ship in the Tonkin Gulf,
prompting retaliation and precipitating the resolution used to
justify the Vietnam War. The report turned out to have been false a
result of mangled and probably falsified intelligence relayed to the
president although an actual attack had occurred two days earlier.
Robert S. McNamara, Johnson's secretary of defense and an architect
of the Vietnam War, later acknowledged that the Aug. 4 attack had not
occurred and said that if Johnson had known, he would not have
ordered the retaliation.
"Had we known it was a tragic mistake," sings the tenor portraying McNamara,
Had we known on August 4th, 1964, we were not attacked.
Had we known we would not have ordered the first bombing of North Vietnam.
Fifty-eight thousand U.S. dead.
Three point seven million Vietnamese dead.
But that is not the only historical resonance of the piece, whose
premiere on Thursday looms as one of the major orchestral events of
the season, and one with rare potential for controversy in this
volatile political moment. On the same day as the Tonkin Gulf
incident, Johnson was dealing with a more immediate tragedy: the
discovery of the bodies of three civil rights workers who had been
murdered in Mississippi, Andrew Goodman, James E. Chaney and Michael
H. Schwerner. The killings helped galvanize support for Johnson's
civil rights agenda, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which
forced Southern states to ease the path of blacks to vote, more than
four decades before the nomination of a black man for president.
Using a collage of excerpts from Johnson's official diary,
transcripts of Oval Office telephone conversations, speeches and
contemporary news reports, Mr. Scheer has woven the incidents
together in a libretto presenting a nuanced view of a complicated
man. It combines Johnson's greatest and worst legacies and portrays
him as noble and bitter, compassionate and bellicose.
The characters are Johnson (Robert Orth, baritone), Mr. McNamara
(Vale Rideout), Mrs. Chaney (Laquita Mitchell, soprano) and Mrs.
Goodman (Kelley O'Connor, mezzo-soprano). The Dallas Symphony's new
music director, Jaap van Zweden, conducts.
In interviews past and present officials of the orchestra, Mr. Scheer
and Mr. Stucky all said they had been aware from the outset that the
work drew a parallel between two wars, Vietnam and Iraq, and two
presidents, Johnson and George W. Bush. But they studiously played
down the political issues.
"I think we should all, as citizens, reflect on the reality of what's
going on, and this may help," Mr. Stucky said. "I certainly don't
want it to be seen as a statement about the present, because it is so
much about the past too."
The Dallas Symphony said that the Bush family had not been invited,
and that Johnson's two daughters had declined to attend. But others
connected with the Johnson administration were expected in the
audience, the orchestra said, along with officials from the Lyndon
Baines Johnson Library and Museum, which cooperated with the project.
One historian given a copy of the libretto said he found the
juxtaposition of the two issues "weird." But then, "it must have been
weird getting his mind around two such different crises happening
simultaneously," said the historian, Edwin E. Moïse of Clemson
University, who wrote a book about the Tonkin Gulf incident.
"There's a reason he looked like an old man when he got out of White
House," Mr. Moïse said. "The strain must have been terrible."
"August 4, 1964" raises other questions. Classical music in recent
times, especially in this country, seems less potent than other art
forms as a means of challenging the status quo or making political
commentary. But there have been powerful recent additions to the
genre, including Steve Reich's "Daniel Variations," inspired by the
2002 murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan.
The Dallas work serves as a reminder of both the pitfalls and the
value of such ventures. Too much relevance can lead to political
schlock, like bad Prokofiev, or cornball (if sometimes endearing)
hagiography, like Copland's "Lincoln Portrait." For the creators too
much topicality may distract from the goal of making a piece of art
that will endure.
Mr. Stucky said he had not thought of the work's political
implications as he was composing. "If you're put in the position of
writing polemical music or agitprop, you're not likely do a good
job," he added. "I was concentrated on writing the best piece I could."
Mr. Scheer agreed, saying it was "absolutely not" his intention to
comment on politics; rather, he said, he wanted to depict Johnson's
"emotional reality." "One of the worst things an artist can do is
shove it down your throat," he added.
Mr. Scheer pointed out that the McNamara lament, which occurs late in
the piece, came about largely because he and Mr. Stucky felt that the
tenor character did not have enough lyrical material. It also
provided a sense of redemption for the character.
In the short term, topical works like "August 4, 1964" at least
provoke conversation, and the attention that classical music
institutions crave in a pop-ruled YouTube world.
"The Dallas Symphony hopes to make a musical and artistic statement
with this," said Mark Melton, the orchestra's vice president for
artistic operations, who was involved in choosing Mr. Stucky for the
commission. "I really hope this piece will have a major life beyond Dallas."
The man behind the idea of commemorating Johnson was Fred Bronstein,
who was president of the Dallas Symphony until he moved on to the St.
Louis Symphony six months ago. Mr. Bronstein said he had not seen the
libretto and pointed out that the creators were given free rein about
subject matter. The only stipulation was a piece for chorus,
orchestra and four soloists to commemorate Johnson.
When asked about modern parallels, Mr. Bronstein answered indirectly.
"History repeats itself," he said. "How this war is judged, time will tell."
For Mr. Stucky the task was daunting. He is a much sought-after
composer, a Cornell University music professor who receives regular
commissions from major orchestras. The New York Philharmonic is
giving the American premiere of his "Rhapsodies," which it
commissioned, on the same night as the "August 4, 1964" performance.
Mr. Stucky will be in Dallas.
But he said he had not written for chorus and orchestra since high
school, which he attended in Abilene, Tex. His family moved to the
state from Kansas when he was 10, and Mr. Stucky attended Baylor
University in Waco. The Dallas Symphony liked the Texas connection.
After Mr. Stucky received the commission, he needed a librettist. Mr.
Stucky's publicist, Philip Wilder, had recently heard a work of Mr.
Scheer's sung by another client. He introduced the two men.
Mr. Scheer, also a songwriter, has collaborated with Tobias Picker on
works including "An American Tragedy" at the Metropolitan Opera, and
with Jake Heggie; their "Moby-Dick" is to be presented at the Dallas
Opera next season.
Mr. Scheer immersed himself in the Johnsonian world, reading multiple
biographies. Mr. Stucky, meanwhile, met with old Johnson associates
and listened to anecdotes.
Mr. Scheer came up with the idea of basing the text on the confluence
of events of Aug. 4, 1964. Coincidentally, he said, the Johnson
library had featured the events of that day on a section of its Web site.
"Gene stumbled on this fact that we could encapsulate those two sides
of America in the '60s on that single date," Mr. Stucky said. "That
was a brilliant stroke."
The two began meeting at a cafe near Mr. Scheer's Upper West Side
apartment in the spring of 2007. Mr. Scheer showed Mr. Stucky his
first number, which begins with fictional words from Mrs. Chaney: "It
was the saddest moment of my life./August 4, 1964/The day they found
my son James Chaney's body."
Mr. Stucky then produced an orchestral interlude, which became the
seventh movement, "Elegy." By the end of last summer Mr. Scheer had
provided the first half of the libretto, and Mr. Stucky began setting
it to music.
Mr. Stucky said he had made a mental checklist of what not to
imitate: "Lincoln Portrait," Britten's "War Requiem," John Adams's
"Nixon in China." He described the musical grammar as somewhere
between tonal and atonal, with an extroverted quality. Johnson's
lines are slower and more lyrical; the McNamara music tends to be
faster, more nervous. When the chorus sings a text based on Oval
Office diary entries ("7 a.m. Awake and up. 7:05 a.m. Breakfast. At
7:15 did exercises."), the music is "strongly pulsed," he said, with
Elegiac, almost devotional music accompanies lines from a Stephen
Spender poem that was posted on the wall of Mrs. Goodman's apartment.
The chorus sings them quietly a cappella.
There is little hint of the music of the time no rock 'n' roll, no
Bob Dylan but Mr. Stucky said that attentive listeners might catch
a ghost of the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome."
Along with the Aug. 4 presidential material Mr. Scheer used Johnson's
powerful speech of a year later introducing the Voting Rights Act;
words from a postcard by Mr. Goodman to his mother; and Mr.
Schwerner's application to the Congress of Racial Equality. His
mother was not included because the commission allowed for only a
quartet of soloists.
Mr. Stucky and Mr. Scheer both said they were not trying to write history.
"It's about human emotions, hopes fears, generosity," Mr. Stucky
said. "I hope that people don't arrive thinking that the Johnson
onstage is a historical character. He's a factor in a work of art.
This is not a disadvantage but an advantage.
"Art moves us, provokes us, to think harder, more than history does.
At least I hope."