Air and Simple Gifts is a classical quartet by American composer John Williams composed for the January 20, 2009, inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States. The piece was first performed at the inauguration in Washington, D.C. by Anthony McGill (clarinet), Itzhak Perlman (violin), Yo-Yo Ma (cello) and Gabriela Montero (piano). It was the first classical quartet to be performed at a presidential inauguration. It was performed immediately prior to Obama taking the oath of office. Obama officially became the President while the piece was being performed, at noon, as the United States Constitution stipulates.
While the piece was performed live, a recording made two days previously was fed to the television pool and speakers. The performers stated that the cold weather could have affected the tuning and durability of the instruments, making a live performance too risky.
Williams based the piece on the familiar nineteenth century Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts," by Joseph Brackett. The source piece is famous for its appearance in Aaron Copland's ballet Appalachian Spring. Williams chose the selection from Copland, one of Obama's favorite classical composers. Copland's Lincoln Portrait was supposed to be featured in a pre-inauguration concert by the National Symphony Orchestra for Dwight Eisenhower in 1953, but was pulled from the performance when a Republican congressman suggested Copland was too liberal, and perhaps a Communist sympathizer.
The piece is slightly under 4.5 minutes. It is structured in roughly three parts. The first section presents the "Air" material, consisting of a spare, descending modal melody introduced by violin, pensively explored in duet with cello and piano accompaniment. The entrance of the clarinet, playing the "Simple Gifts" theme, signals the beginning of a small set of variations on that melody. The "Air" melody at first intermingles with the "Gifts" theme, though it is supplanted by increasingly energetic variations. Midway through, the key shifts from A-major to D-major, in which the piece concludes. A short coda reprising the "Air" material follows the most vigorous of the "Gifts" variations. The piece concludes with an unusual series of cadences, ending with chord progression D-major followed by B-major, G-minor and finally D-major.