In 2009, Barack Obama wanted to include a moment of uplifting music in his inauguration. So he called Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman, two of the most beloved figures in classical music. He said he wanted them to play in the ceremony. He said he liked Copland. And he left it at that.
Ma and Perlman could have raised a number of objections. They could have said that there were not any pieces for violin and cello that fit the bill; Copland certainly didn't write one. They could have said that there was no time for someone to compose something new. They could have said that it was impossible to play their instruments outdoors in icy weather in the month of January. But none of those seemed a proper response to this well-meant and signal honor. So, thinking on their feet, they turned to John Williams, the film composer, with whom they had both worked before ("Schindler's List," "Seven Years in Tibet," "Memoirs of a Geisha"), who could write on deadline, and who was an expert at producing music tailored to a specific scene or mood.
The result was exactly what was ordered: a piece of earnestly uplifting music, "Air and Simple Gifts," that incorporated Copland and featured Ma, Perlman and two other artists, Gabriela Montero and Anthony McGill. Unfortunately, since it would have been impossible to play it live under the weather conditions that day, the artists prerecorded the music and then performed to a playback, and the idea that the music was faked, lip-synced, inauthentic seized the popular imagination, briefly, as if everyone had been subject to some kind of hoax. And the discussion about whether or not the music was any good, and about whether or not it had been right to prerecord it — discussion in which I, at the time, actively took part — eclipsed what perhaps should have been the main point, which was that it was nice that the president wanted classical music included at all.
Whether Obama will include music at his second inauguration, later this month, remains a matter of conjecture, but of course it's beside the point. State ceremonies at once exalt and diminish music. They offer a framework in which everyone can understand music's importance and desirability (Barber's "Adagio for Strings" at state funerals, Kiri te Kanawa singing "Let the Bright Seraphim" for Prince Charles's wedding to Lady Diana Spencer): It is there to support, embellish, illustrate or prolong the moment, or simply to offer some breathing room. But music in this context is also music at its most utilitarian: It represents art without necessarily being art. I was wrong, in 2009, to try to judge "Air and Simple Gifts" as if it were meant to be concert music; Williams, Ma and Perlman understood their assignment a lot better than I did when I first heard it.
Including music at the inauguration was an example of thinking outside the box: At past inaugurations, instrumental music had generally remained solely in the hands of the U.S. Marine Band, "The President's Own." It also turned out to be a pretty good indicator of the administration's general attitude toward the arts: at once extremely important and a little apart. Obama has emphasized the importance of the arts in education; he has hosted concerts at the White House devoted to a range of musical genres. But he is — certainly in the realm of classical music — an appreciator rather than a devotee. He very much wants to have the arts around; but for him personally — as for many, many American citizens — they are a pleasant adornment rather than an object of passion. He didn't have a favorite piece he particularly wanted played: He wanted something appropriate, and symbolic.
And the attempt to use art as a symbol can often backfire. Works of art are hard to cubbyhole into pat, marketing-style categories; even the "Adagio for Strings," which was originally inspired by Virgil's "Georgics," is somewhat subversive when played as a work of mourning. And a work of art that is intended merely to stand for something arguably lacks the force or content of a work created from an expressive vision. Visual artists from Rodchenko to Warhol, Lichtenstein to Koons have played around with the art-as-symbol trope, but it's been rarer in composition; Shostakovich is the only composer who comes immediately to mind, and playing his music at an inauguration would be the supreme act of expressive ambiguity.
But it's open to question just how much force these symbols have in any case. One long-standing quasi-tradition, observed at many though not all inaugurations in the past 50-odd years, is the presence of an African American female vocalist to perform either the national anthem or another appropriately patriotic opus: Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Denyce Graves, Ethel Ennis and, finally, at Obama's first inauguration, Aretha Franklin. Inaugurations are apparently one of the few areas of public life in which women of color enjoy an overwhelming majority. It's not clear exactly what this symbolizes, either, though one thing is certain: Aretha, like Yo-Yo Ma, may have felt her musicmaking was affected by the cold weather, but she and her hat turned in a wonderful performance.