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Inaugural Theme - Air And Simple Gifts 
23rd-Jan-2009 10:44 am
Air and Simple Gifts - John Williams
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.

23rd-Jan-2009 06:58 pm (UTC)
I heard on NPR this morning that the performance we saw was not the performance we heard. Because the instruments would be impossible to correctly tune given the weather, the performers essentially "lip synced" their playing to a recording that was heard over the PA system. I'm a bit disappointed that this was not disclosed during the event, but am happy that this ensured that the piece would be heard the way it was meant to be heard.
23rd-Jan-2009 10:18 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting this. I wanted to hear the piece again, as some of my coworkers were not respectful to the music when we watched the inauguration.
24th-Jan-2009 01:18 am (UTC)
Anthony McGill who was the clarinet player is a former student of mine from Interlochen Center for the Arts. I am so proud of him.
25th-Jan-2009 07:00 am (UTC)
That's a beautiful piece of art. I like John Williams' other music, and it's great to add this to my collection.

Thank you!
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