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Obama's 'Hope And Virtue' Distilled In A Song

Martin Luther King Jr. waves to supporters during the 1963 March on Washington and President Barack Obama speaks at his first inauguration in 2009.
Timothy A. Clary
AFP/Getty Images
Martin Luther King Jr. waves to supporters during the 1963 March on Washington and President Barack Obama speaks at his first inauguration in 2009.

On Jan. 20, 2009, Barack Obama was sworn in as the first African-American president of the United States. And Monday, President Obama will be sworn in again — this time on a most auspicious day, the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

In King's most famous speech, he said, "In spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream."

Obama also talked of a dream on that bitterly cold day four years ago. As he took over a country suffering through wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a severely battered economy, he said, "With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come."

Those words, from Obama's first inaugural address, caught the ear of choral conductor Judy Clurman. She was at the tail end of a project that came to be called Sing Out Mr. President, her set of commissions for short choral pieces based on the words of 16 American presidents (which NPR helped fund and which made its debut on this blog).

With Obama's words in hand, Clurman turned to Broadway composer and lyricist Georgia Stitt to write the music. She told Stitt she wanted a canon (a melody that overlaps itself, as in "Row, Row, Row Your Boat") that could be sung by high school groups or professionals. Stitt composed the piece in one day.

"I think Obama is very inspiring," Stitt says. "Just the first few words, 'with hope and virtue,' he's calling us to be filled with hope and to be virtuous people. We want a nation of people who are hopeful and virtuous.

"And then Judy and I stuck in 'Yes we can,' the phrase from Obama's campaign, in the chorale. That wasn't part of the inaugural speech but we added that because that's what he calls us to do, to believe that we are capable."

Clurman has rerecorded the music on a new album, Celebrating the American Spirit. Along with choral settings of words from Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, FDR and Bill Clinton, the album examines the presidency and patriotism not with boisterous pomp, but from a more quiet and thoughtful viewpoint.

John Philip Sousa's blustery "The Stars and Stripes Forever" makes an appearance, but not in its natural full-blown band habitat. Instead, it's transformed by Billy Test into gently swinging piano jazz.

The Book of Mormon arranger Larry Hochman's tender adaptation of "Take Care of this House," from Leonard Bernstein's little-known musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, is another good example. Rhyming couplets like "Take care of this house, be always on call/Care for this house, it's the hope of us all" have a melancholy feel, as a cello and a clarinet wrap around the voice of Broadway star Kelli O'Hara. Bernstein himself, with mezzo-soprano Frederica Von Stade, performed the song at President Carter's inauguration.

For laughs, there's Irving Berlin's "It Gets Lonely in the White House," from his final Broadway show, 1962's Mr. President. Ron Raines clearly gets a kick out of singing lines that are as apropos today as they were 50 years ago:

When a bill to lower taxes

Must go on the shelf

And you'd really like to sign it

And pay less yourself

When your speech is optimistic

But the stocks keep tumblin' down

The White House is the loneliest place in town.

With all that faces the president and the American people on this Inauguration Day — the bickering over debt ceilings and gun laws, the violence in Syria and Mali, the stubborn high unemployment — it might seem like our dreams for a "more perfect union" are far from being fulfilled.

But perhaps this simple little song about "hope and virtue" will spark confidence in a 237-year-old country that keeps trying to get it right.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.
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