Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Band Plays On

[Ed. Note: This essay is the third in a series of inauguration-related posts leading up to the presidential inauguration on January 20, 2017.  Each author of these essays will participate in a "live-blog" event during the course of inauguration day itself here on Musicology Now.]

By Katherine Meizel
A marching band in Truman's 1949 inauguration
The first presidential inaugurations of Donald Trump’s lifetime (b. 1946) were also the first to be televised, beginning with Harry Truman’s second term in 1949. Though radio coverage was already available, the new availability of inaugural sights and sounds in American living rooms transformed the ceremonies taking place at the capitol into thoroughly nationwide popular events. If he watched, a genuinely tiny-handed little Mr. Trump would have seen the Marine Band playing “Hail to the Chief,” marching for Truman just as it would for him decades later. He would have caught the 1953 moment when cowboy rodeo star Montie Montana lassoed the new President Eisenhower in his reviewing box, long before, as president-elect, Mr. Trump would commission a cowboy hat to commemorate his own inauguration. (He would also have heard Charlie Brotman as inaugural parade announcer for the first time in 1957, little knowing that 61 years later he would fire the same man just prior to his own parade, by email). In fact, the participant roster for the 2017 inauguration reads a little like a collection of the boyhood heroes a man of Mr. Trump’s age might have worshiped in the 1950s—the policemen, firefighters, veterans, and cowboys,[1] ordinary working-class citizens who, in the post-War American imagination, made America great.
In December 2016, news outlets began gleefully publishing lists of artists who had declined invitations to participate in President-elect Trump’s inauguration. Mr. Trump quickly availed himself of his weapon of choice, posting on Twitter:

The so-called ‘A’ list celebrities are all wanting tixs to the inauguration, but look what they did for Hillary. NOTHING. I want the PEOPLE!”

We might puzzle that the man who lives in a Versailles-inspired penthouse will not have the most extravagant installation since the British monarchy exited the colonies (the original Brexit), but it is consistent with the anti-elitist rhetoric that attracted so many voters. Mr. Trump’s tweeted declaration of independence from the celebrity casts him as a champion, and gatekeeper, of ordinary Americans. The dearth of stars available does mean that in this inauguration, more focus will be placed on these “PEOPLE,” as it was in the early years of Mr. Trump’s life. They will be on display especially in the inaugural parade, which accompanies the president from the capitol building to the White House after the swearing-in. They will march in both homegrown patriot groups and the civic organizations charged with keeping the nation safe—and they will march to American music.

“Ordinary Americans” and “American music” are of course complicated classifications, and the collective bodies chosen to represent them on state occasions tell us much about social and sonic identity politics at a given historical moment. The bodies who themselves choose to represent them, to accept the invitation, says quite a bit, too. Hopeful groups applied to participate before the end of the election, and those selected made the decision whether or not to attend—most publicly, a band from the historically-black Talladega College, which carefully considered its choice after alumni criticized it. In the end, the band will perform, the college President disavowing any potential political implications in performing at what he terms a “civil ceremony.” But any performance can be political, as Lincoln and Denzin argue, “an act involving potential struggles and negotiations over meaning, identity, and power…” (Lincoln and Denzin 2003: 440), and the sounds of the inaugural parade will encapsulate specific musical histories of Americanness.

The official souvenir program pamphlet for William McKinley’s 1901 inauguration included a fanciful essay imagining what a 21st century event might look like. While McKinley had the traditional cordon of military and civic bands, led by the “President’s Own” Marine Band as it had been a hundred years earlier, the prophesied leader of the 118 United States would have only “four great automatic bands…operated by buttons, [that] simultaneously rendered a programme of popular music.” Actually, despite the fact that we could use pre-recorded or automated sounds, in 2017 the nine marching bands will still be led by the same very-much live Marine Band. Every inaugural parade since 1801 has included professional bands of the U.S. military branches, and eventually their progeny, civic, college & university, and high school marching bands, as community ensembles took the nation by storm later in the 19th century. Since then, the bands and their music have helped to shape our ideas about American national identity in shifting global contexts. Sometimes there has been a kind of world-exhibition character to the roster, as in 1909 when the Philippine Constabulary band joined William Howard Taft’s inaugural concert to demonstrate American colonial success (“Men Who Seven Years Ago Had Never Seen Instruments Now Play Wagner and Beethoven,” read a contemporary news feature.) And often, the music of our patriotism reflects the complex relationship between the U.S. and Britain, between immigration and Americanness.

Next Friday, the Marine Band will, as it has since the 19th century, and as it does dozens of times per year, play “Hail to the Chief.” Charmingly, as Elise Kirk relates (1997: 123), Harry Truman turned musicologist himself after he heard it at his inauguration, and wrote to a Scottish journal to ask about the origin of the familiar tune. Though Truman did not learn the full story, the tune that honors our presidents was popularized during the War of 1812 (the same conflict that produced The Star Spangled Banner) through sheet music, after it appeared in a dramatic production based on Sir Walter Scott’s 1810 poem Lady of the Lake. The stanzas set by English composer John Sanderson for an 1811 British play were was picked up in an 1812 American version, for a scene in which a chorus of boatmen salute the Douglas clan’s chieftain Roderick Dhu—Kirk suggests that Sanderson’s may have either used the melody of a preexisting traditional boat song or composed an imitation (131).[2]

At the time “Hail to the Chief” was written, the U.S. was engaged in a conflict ignited in part by contradictory understandings of immigration (Taylor 2010). For the U.S., a British subject who had emigrated from Britain was no longer a British subject; Britain did not subscribe to this line of thinking, and had been continually pressing, among others, Irish American sailors into military service for the crown. Now, as we inaugurate an administration elected partly for its own controversial views regarding who is allowed to be American, the ceremonies will showcase another tradition, one that is central to the negotiation of Irish American identity.

Mr. Trump has been hailed by some as a hero of American whiteness. The made-in-the-U.S.A. whiteness he grew up with emerged after the Second World War, constructed through the destruction of non-white ethnic neighborhoods, and the evacuation of white ethnic neighborhoods in fear of the sudden resulting influx. These changes led to the development of suburban spaces (like those Fred Trump built) to house a newly monolithic collection of white “European American” identities (Lipsitz 1995: 373-374). Consequently, the reaffirmation of white ethnic identities suddenly felt like a newly urgent matter. This is where the pipe and drum band tradition came in.

Five pipe and drum bands will play in the parade, including the US Border Patrol Pipe & Drums and the NYPD Emerald Society Pipes & Drums. The NYPD Emerald Society started it all, founding an organization for New York’s Irish American police officers in 1953, as a response to the City police commissioner’s reluctant, but official, 1949 acknowledgement of the Black policemen’s Guardians organization (Darien 2013: 33-34)[3]. The founding of Emerald societies engendered a renewed interest in the preservation of traditional Irish music, overlapping with a broader American “folk music” revival, and soon police departments, then fire departments and other civil service units, and even military academies, across the nation boasted pipe and drum ensembles[4]. Emerald society bands learned the pipe and drum music inherited from Irish military and funeral contexts,[5] and have had a vital presence at police funerals ever since. They eventually became ubiquitous at certain public events and parades, and they have been assigned a special importance at memorials for those who died on 9/11, as 145 of the 343 fire fighters who perished in the rescue effort belonged to the FDNY Emerald Society (Meagher 2006: 610). 


So this is the inaugural parade, a pageant for (a version of) “the PEOPLE” and by (a version of) “the PEOPLE”. Its lineup privileges the culture of particular American demographic groups whose interests helped to shape Mr. Trump’s career and his understanding of the country he would one day lead. Its sounds will make some Americans feel safe, nostalgic, while others will hear only the same silenced voices that have crowded the Capitol at every inauguration. “Making America great again” demands a focus on the past. But if we continue to march ahead with our gazes fixed firmly behind us, we’re bound to fall.


Darien, Andrew T.  2013. Becoming New York’s Finest: Race, Gender, and the Integration of the NYPD, 1935-1980. New York: Palgrave McMillan.

Kirk, Elise K. 1997. “’Hail to the Chief’”: The Origins and Legacies of an American Ceremonial Tune.” American Music 15(2):123-136.

Lincoln, Yvonna S. and Norman K. Denzin, editors. 2003. Turning Points in Qualitative Research: Tying Knots in a Handkerchief. Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press.

Lipsitz, George. 1995. “The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: Racialized Social Democracy and the “White” Problem in American Studies.” American Quarterly 47(3): 369-387.

Meagher, Timothy J. 2006. “The Fireman on the Stairs: Cmmunal Loyalties in the Making of Irish America.” Making the Irish American: History and Heritage of the Irish in the United States. (J.J. Lee and Marion R. Casey, editors). New York and London: New York University Press.

Taylor, Alan. 2010. The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

[1]  In 2017, there is Cowboy Troy at the ball, and there are cowgirls in the parade.
[2] The origin of “Hail to the Chief” has special resonance for our new president. His mother was Scottish, a MacLeod born on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. He has visited his mother’s hometown, and the website for the Trump International Golf Links in Scotland offers lengthy information about his ancestry there, as well as a crest he invented. The crest’s motto reads “Never Give Up.” But the crest for the Lewis clan MacLeod is a burning sun, and the Scots motto (not Gaelic) reads “I birn quhil I se,” (translated variously as I burn while I see or I burn while I shall) or in Latin “Luceo non uro” (I shine/glow, not burn, or I burn but am not consumed). Though the English translations for these phrases do not correspond exactly, they both have to do with a quality of fire-resistance, an ancient predecessor of “Teflon Don.” The story of this motto is tied, weirdly, to the ruined Trumpan Church on the Isle of Skye—ruined because some MacDonalds, the mortal enemies of the MacLeods, tried to burn a group of them inside in 1578 (it was revenge for a similar act on the part of the MacLeods). Basically, the motto says, “You can set me on fire, but I’m indestructible, and I’ll just come out of it stronger.” For America’s new Sun King, that sounds about right.
[3] The Nevada Emerald Society also confirms as much on its website, though without explicitly mentioning the Guardians.
[4] The first was the NYPD’s in 1960.
[5] Speaking of military contexts, it’s worth noting that the pipe portion of the Citadel military academy’s Regimental Band & Pipes, which will perform in the inauguration January 20, was added in 1955.

Katherine Meizel is an Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. She earned her Ph.D. in ethnomusicology at UCSB, and also holds a doctorate in vocal performance. Her research includes topics in voice and identity, popular music and media, religion, American identities, and disability studies. Her book Idolized: Music, Media, and Identity in American Idol (IU Press) was published in 2011; she also wrote about Idol for the magazine Slate from 2007 to 2011. She is currently co-editing the upcoming Oxford Handbook of Voice Studies, and completing a monograph for Oxford University Press titled Multivocality: An Ethnography of Singing on the Borders of Identity.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Another Counter-Inaugural Concert

[Ed. Note: This essay is the second in a series of inauguration-related posts leading up to the presidential inauguration on January 20, 2017.  Each author of these essays will participate in a "live-blog" event during the course of inauguration day itself here on Musicology Now.]

by James Deaville

We tend to forget or be unaware that Trump’s inauguration is not the first to garner protests in the form of alternative musical events. One such occasion was the second Nixon inauguration concert in Washington, DC, on January 19, 1973. In the evening, Eugene Ormandy led the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in a concert that featured soloist Van Cliburn (Grieg Piano Concerto), the Valley Forge Military Band, and the Robert Wagner Chorale, and closed with the 1812 Overture, which was said to be a personal favorite of Nixon (Associated Press 1973). Sixteen orchestra members refused to perform, and Ormandy denounced them as “left-wing sons of bitches.” (Nixon 1973)

Several miles to the northwest, at the National Cathedral, Leonard Bernstein directed members of the National Symphony in a concert called “A Plea for Peace,” an alternative event timed to coincide with the official concert. The only work on the program was Haydn’s Mass in Time of War – the conductor had selected the work in consultation with the National Cathedral’s dean Francis Sayre, who was a leading Vietnam War protester, as was Bernstein. (Tooley 2008) The free concert drew a large crowd – the cathedral could only accommodate 3,000, and the overflow of 12,000 people remained standing outside in the rain, listening to the events through a poor p.a. system, some of them waiting six hours for admission. (Dionne & Lindsay 1973) As Washington Post columnist Henry Mitchell reported, “in case any didn’t get the message from Haydn’s “Mass in Time of War,” it was… introduced by former Senator [and presidential candidate] Eugene McCarthy, poet and early leader of the peace movement.” (Mitchell 1973) McCarthy’s embittered words did not inspire much hope for results: “through arguments and persuasion, appeals and petitions, … all of us here have exhausted all of the means open to us and yet the war has gone on.” (Mitchell 1973) The performance featured unpaid soloists (Patricia Wells, Gwendolyn Killebrew, Alan Titus, and Michael Devlin), a paid orchestra of 50 local players and a chorus of 125 singers.

The polysemy of Haydn’s musical gesture, as potentially a protest of war and a plea for peace, carried over onto the cathedral proceedings. Sayre stated beforehand, “I am not viewing this as a counter-Inaugural or a protest...; we feel that… a concert was one way we could make our plea for peace.” (Hume 1973) However, the majority of the public regarded the concert as a protest. Large numbers of attendees are reported as saying “we’re here to protest the war” and “we’re here to protest Nixon.” The curate of St. John’s Episcopal Church went so far as to proclaim “of course this is a protest. You don’t think all of those people are out there to hear the music, do you?” (Mitchell 1973)

The New York Times called the concert a “plea for peace rather than a protest, but the choice of music alone made clear the counterpoint [to the Kennedy Center event].” (Robenalt 2015) Under the title “Haydn and Peace,” The Washington Post review identified Haydn’s work as “a rallying point of anti-Nixon sentiment.” (Mitchell 1973) Though the concert occurred near the end of the Vietnam War, it became a landmark event within the history of the Vietnam protest movement: important for the future was the appropriation of Haydn’s Mass as a vehicle for peaceful protest of war. The significant national and international press coverage undoubtedly made the counter-concert a model for similar events in coming years. Thus, for three different performances in protest of the Iraq War—in 2003, 2007 and 2008—Bernstein’s own iconic 1973 concert figured prominently in the published thoughts of organizers and commentators. The political context of the January 2017 protests may fully differ, yet the parallels remain: music and musicians are being mobilized to demonstrate against an unpopular president whose character and policies threaten the fabric of the nation, as Nixon’s did in 1973.


Associated Press. “Nixon’s Night for Music. A Protest Concert, Too.” San Francisco Chronicle. January 20, 1973, 16.

Dionne, E.J. and Dorothy A. Lindsay. “Demonstrators Face Nixon: Two Worlds in Washington.” The Harvard Crimson. January 29, 1973. http://www.thecrimson.com/article/1973/1/29/demonstrators-face-nixon-two-worlds-in/http://www.thecrimson.com/article/1973/1/29/demonstrators-face-nixon-two-worlds-in/

Hume, Paul. “Plea for Peace.” The Washington Post.  January 11, 1973, C1.

Mitchell, Henry. “Haydn and Peace: Of Mass, War and Peace.” The Washington Post. January 20, 1973, C7.

Nixon, Richard. Dairy Entry, January 19, 1973. Cited in Frank Gannon. “Leonard Bernstein’s 1972 [sic] Counter-Inaugural.” Richard Nixon Foundation. August 28, 2009.
Robenalt, James. January 1973: Watergate, Roe v. Wade, Vietnam, and the Month That Changed America Forever. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2015, 245.

Tooley, Mark. “Death of a Presidential Grandson.” The American Spectator. October 21, 2008. https://spectator.org/42788_death-presidential-grandson/ 

James Deaville teaches Music in the School for Studies in Art and Culture at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. He has edited Music in Television (Routledge, 2010) and has co-edited Music and the Broadcast Experience (Oxford, 2016). He is currently working on a study of music and sound in cinematic trailers, a result of the Trailaurality research group and co-editing an anthology on music and advertising as one of the Oxford Handbooks.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Lieder of the Free World: Music and Military at Barack Obama’s 2008 Inaugural Concert

[Ed. Note: This essay is the first in a series of inauguration-related posts leading up to the presidential inauguration on January 20, 2017.  Each author of these essays will participate in a "live-blog" event during the course of inauguration day itself here on Musicology Now.]

by Dan Blim

As a presidential candidate in 2008, Barack Obama made his opposition to the war in Iraq a centerpiece of his identity. NPR Correspondent Don Gonyea notes that Obama repeats his position as “the only candidate who opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning” at nearly every campaign stop. No doubt this position helped Obama win first the Democratic primary, and then the presidential election later that year. Assuming the role of president, however, Obama had to counter a very different image: the Democratic leader stereotypically “weak” on defense.

Throughout his campaign, journalists commented on Obama’s ease in shifting his image, particularly regarding his own racial and geographic identity—a black American, the son of an immigrant, the grandson of a white Midwestern farming family, a native of Hawaii—what Communications scholar Gwen Brown called “a collage of many different stories.”1 Obama’s inauguration showcased again a modulation of his identity, this time balancing his anti-war past with his present role as powerful commander-in-chief. His effort to do so can be seen in the carefully curated musical selections for his pre-Inaugural celebratory concert “We Are One,” held at the Lincoln Memorial the day before the Inauguration.

Obama’s strength as leader was underscored at the outset. The United States Army Band opened the concert with Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, played just before Obama entered. The heralding brass and drums, performed here by men and women in uniform, signal Obama as commander-in-chief. The selection of Copland added a touch of populist Americana, and also subtly alluded to Obama’s Midwestern roots through Copland’s popular connotations of the prairie.2 Immediately following the Obamas’ and Bidens’ entrance, the band struck up The Star Spangled Banner, sung by Master Sergeant Caleb Green. Unlike many recent pop performances that adopt a duple meter, a more traditional triple meter was used here. Mark Clague has remarked upon the expressive power of duple meter in iconic performances by Beyoncé and Whitney Houston, likening their renditions to a prayer; the rendition here, with its quicker triple meter and more emphasis on each beat, created a march-like effect and furthered Obama’s image of strength.

The concert that followed featured an alternation of musical performances and readings, often quotations from prominent historical figures like Thomas Jefferson, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Thurgood Marshall, Marian Anderson, and Barbara Jordan. One of the few readings not quoting past leaders was Tiger Woods’s dedicatory speech honoring the Armed Forces. Woods reflected on his own father, a member of the military, and concluded by saying “We must always stand by and support the men and women in uniform and their families.” The exhortation to support the troops was doubtless familiar to many as a Republican slogan during George W. Bush’s years. Indeed, Woods’s speech appeared so strongly to recall Republican wartime values under Bush that it inspired a chain email that erroneously suggested Woods had surprised Obama and angered liberals by paying tribute to the soldiers. The desire to praise the service and sacrifice of the military appears to be part of Obama’s plan. Yet the musical performances surrounding this dedication paint a more reflective stance that suggests Obama’s anti-war candidacy.

Just before Woods’s address, Herbie Hancock, Sheryl Crow, and will.i.am took to the stage with a mashup of two rather pacifistic songs: Bob Marley’s “One Love” and The Black Eyed Peas “Where Is the Love?” Crow’s presence was especially potent, as she had been a prominent activist against the war in Iraq during George W. Bush’s presidency, frequently sporting headline-grabbing anti-war t-shirts in performance. And as George Lipsitz has observed, will.i.am’s group The Black-Eyed Peas’ song “Where Is the Love?,” released in 2003, was unusual within the mainstream for its direct criticism of the Iraq war.3

Sheryl Crow, Herbie Hancock, and will.i.am perform at Obama's Inauguration 

Yet any anti-war messages in the song was softened by necessity, given the presidential circumstances. will.i.am only performed the first verse of “Where’s the Love,” which largely focuses on racial hatred, not war. The second verse, with critical lyrics like “A war is goin’ on but the reason’s undercover/ The truth is kept secret, it’s swept under the rug” was omitted. Moreover, will.i.am alters the lyrics to be less critical of the government. In the original, will.i.am raps:

     Overseas we trying to stop terrorism
     But we still got terrorists here livin’
     In the USA, the big CIA
     The Bloods and the Crips and the KKK

The line was changed, understandably, to not single out the CIA as terrorists, but goes further by speaking more abstractly about hate and invoking an implicit solution in education:

     Overseas we trying to stop terrorism
     But we still got terrorists here livin’
     In the USA, no education
     And we got that racial hate.

Even will.i.am’s own performance is softened here, abandoning his original incisive rapping—a hallmark of hip hop’s political past—for a more harmonious, mainstream-friendly, almost sing-song approach to the verse. Indeed, while hip hop artists appeared covering other songs at the concert, this moment is as close as hip hop came to being included in the celebration.

If “One Love/Where Is The Love?” offered a throwback to Obama’s anti-war past, and Woods’s dedication presented an unabashed patriotic positioning of Obama as commander-in-chief and supporter-of-troops, the song that followed Woods offers further ambiguity. Woods concluded by proudly announcing the U.S. Naval Glee Club as the next performers (but not the soloist, opera star Renée Fleming), who perform Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s classic “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel.

The song is an inspired—and inspiring—choice. Unlike most Broadway standards, which use a repetitive AABA song form, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” traces a slow-building path toward the powerful climax at end of the song. The lyrical message of hope after struggle are matched with a melody that rises higher and higher over the course of the song, traversing an octave and a fifth (the same range as “The Star-Spangled Banner”). Just before the climactic finale, the words “walk on, walk on with hope” and shortly thereafter the title phrase “You’ll never walk alone” are both sung on a stubbornly repeating high note, as the harmonies beneath that note rise in tension, the cadence anxiously prolonged: a final struggle to overcome, with the eventual release coming with the highest note of the song on the repeated, final assurance “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

After Fleming sings the song, the mood shifts slightly. The US Naval Chorus reprises the song, accompanied by a steady march-like drumbeat that emphasizes the lyrical message of persistence. Accompanying their performance, a montage of photographs of soldiers leaving their families are displayed. The message seems clear: by supporting the troops, we assure them that despite the difficulty of their service, they never walk alone. But Fleming retakes the lead halfway through the song while a second montage plays, one of photographs of soldiers coming home, beginning with a sign that reads “Welcome Home Daddy” with a picture of a soldier holding an infant, then panning up to reveal a toddler holding the sign, revealing the years passed during the war. For a president who campaigned on ending the war, these images suggest an anti-war reading of supporting the troops by bringing them home. Indeed, this message is more in line with how the original song may have been read. As musicologist Jim Lovensheimer observes, Carousel debuted in 1945, and the song was originally sung to provide comfort and support to Julie Jordan after her husband, Billy Bigelow, had been killed.4 Such a scene would have resonated with young women widowed during the war, and for those who know the original, could similarly invite here a critique of the Iraq war’s tragic costs.

These performances were only a few of the many that celebrated Obama’s inauguration that day (a full two-hour video is available here), all of which served to underscore his identities and ideals in various ways. As Donald Trump’s inauguration is taking shape, the ongoing coverage of who will—and won’t—perform at the event offers a rich perspective on how Trump is seeking to shape his political and personal identity, as well as how performers are choosing to define their own identities alongside his. As Obama’s inauguration reveals, paying attention not simply to who performs, but also what they perform, how they perform, and where in the order they perform can matter a great deal as well. So listen up on January 19 and 20, as Donald Trump scores his Presidential victory.

1 Gwen Brown, “A More Perfect Union: Barack Obama’s Failed Apologia and Successful Use of Identity Politics,” in Robert E. Denton Jr., Studies of Identity in the 2008 Presidential Campaign, 57.

2 For more on the political history of this piece, and Copland’s work more broadly, see Elizabeth B. Crist, “Aaron Copland and the Popular Front,” Journal of the American Musicological Society, 56, no. 2 (Summer 2003), 409–65 Annegret Fauser, Sounds of War: Music in the United States during World War II (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), especially chapter five.

3 George Lipsitz, Footsteps in the Dark: The Hidden Histories of Popular Music (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 266.

4 Jim Lovensheimer, “‘When the Children Are Asleep’: Carousel in 1957,” Studies in Musical Theatre, 3, no. 1 (2009): 102.

Dan Blim is an assistant professor of music at Denison University. His dissertation "Patchwork Nation: Collage, Music, and American Identity" was awarded the Society for American Music's Wiley Housewright Dissertation Award, and his ongoing research and teaching interests include film music, Broadway musicals, and music and memorialization.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Quick Takes on Rogue One: Putting the Opera Back in "Space Opera"

By Naomi Graber

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the Star Wars saga is inherently Wagnerian (Kalinak, 1992; Schroeder, 2002). Just how Wagnerian is up for debate (Paulin, 2000), but the musical parallels between Wagner’s and John Williams’s themes are undeniable (Lehman, 2016). Yet for all of Williams’s fanfares, French horns, and sweeping strings, Michael Giacchino’s score for Rogue One might be the most Wagnerian installment in the series yet. When the prequel trilogy came out, the focus of the Star Wars saga shifted from the heroic journey of Luke Skywalker to the corruption and redemption of Anakin Skywalker. Rogue One picks up on that particularly Wagnerian idea of redemption through sacrifice.

Musically, this notion of redemption comes to a head in the cue “Your Father Would be Proud” toward the end of the movie. The cue begins as the shield surrounding Scarif is destroyed, allowing the transmission of the plans to the rebel ship. But amidst this moment of triumph, tragedy strikes. K-2SO, Chirrut, Baze, and Bodhi are already dead, and the Death Star fires on Scarif, dooming Jyn and Cassian. The strings play a hymn-like theme whose major-mode, diatonic melody presents a striking contrast with the predominantly minor and chromatic music of the rest of the film. Oscillating thirds in the middle and upper registers lend the moment an air of weightlessness, as if the characters, who have been bogged down in their disreputable pasts, have finally found peace in their heroic sacrifice.

Narratively and musically, the “Father” cue exhibits numerous parallels with the end of the Ring. As a new (or in the case of the Ring mostly new) theme sounds in the score, we see a daughter sacrifice herself to make right the mistakes of her estranged father.[1]  Moreover, although the opening melody of “Father” is new, the melodies that follow haven’t been heard since much earlier in the film, hearkening back to Wagner’s careful use of the “redemption” motive. Giacchino also draws on Wagner’s tonal tricks. The preceeding musc Rogue One is firmly in A-minor,[2] which slides down to G-major at the beginning of “Father.” A similar gesture ends the Ring; Siegfried’s motive sounds one last time, ending on a D-major chord that gives way to the Db-major ending. This downward tonal motion does not deliver the expected resolution, but it does provide a release of tension. The story may not resolve happily, but at least our flawed heroes have found peace in death, both Wagner’s and Giacchino’s music tells us.[3]

But while the “Father” cue provides a satisfying conclusion to the story of Rogue One, it presents a problem for the rest of the saga, mostly since Star Wars continues to be written out of order. When John Williams scored the original trilogy, the redemption of Anakin Skywalker did not carry the same narrative weight that it does in light of the prequels. Anakin’s death is accompanied by eerie echoes of the “Imperial March,” indicating his fading strength, not the cosmic forgiving of his sins. A few scenes later, the “Force” theme accompanies Anakin’s funeral pyre, but the moment is short, and unceremoniously cut off by the celebration of the defeat of Empire. Consequently, the sacrifice of the heroic grunts in Rogue One receives more attention than that of one of the saga’s primary protagonists. Furthermore, Rogue One was billed as a prequel to A New Hope, which makes the battle of Scarif a prelude to the Battle of Yavin (in which the first Death Star is destroyed). But the expansive combination of space and ground combat at Scarif (and improvements in special effects) appears much grander than the tight-knit, white-knuckle run to destroy the Death Star, rendering the finale of A New Hope somewhat anti-climactic. The Wagnerian finality of “Father” only makes matters worse. Giacchino gives the end Rogue One a catharsis that it does not deserve in the context of the rest of the Star Wars universe. By shifting the weight of the story to Anakin, the prequel trilogy opened numerous narrative fault lines that the ending of Rogue One aggravates.

There is a way to look at Rogue One which makes both narrative and musical sense. While Giacchino’s deploys motives from the original trilogy, the new themes are more reminiscent of the prequels. His new “Empire” motive combines gestures from music that accompanies the droid army in The Phantom Menace and the “Imperial March.” Jyn’s theme bears more than a passing resemblance to the love theme from Attack of the Clones. Rogue One seems to me less of a prelude—a Das Rheingold—to the original trilogy, and more like an epilogue—a Götterdämmerung—for the prequels. Throughout Episodes I, II, and III, we saw the rise of the Empire. Now, in Rogue One, we see it at the height of its power, but by the finale we’ve seen the beginning of the end. As in the end of the Ring Cycle, the old world must crumble, making way for a new hope.

Naomi Graber s an assistant professor of musicology at the University of Georgia. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a dissertation on Kurt Weill's early American works. In addition to her research on the pre-Oklahoma! Broadway musical, she is interested in musical theatre and film of the post-9/11 era, particularly in issues of gender. Her work appears in Studies in Musical Theatre and at Traon the Trail, and is forthcoming in Journal of the Society for American Music and Musical Quarterly.

[1] I’m grateful to Brooke McCorkle for pointing out the narrative parallels with the Ring.
[2] Unlike the Ring, Rogue One then moves on to a coda (the “Hope” cue), but by the end of “Father,” all of the protagonists have died. The following moments simply provide a link to Episode IV (reinforced the presence of the “Imperial March” and the Force theme).
[3] Unlike the Ring, Rogue One then moves on to a coda (the “Hope” cue), but by the end of “Father,” all of the protagonists have died. The following moments simply provide a link to Episode IV (reinforced the presence of the “Imperial March” and the Force theme).