Democracy has been called the worst form of government except for all the others. In the United States, democracy is inextricably linked with the presidency, that august office which votes fill, which pundits punch and where the buck famously stops for the commonweal.
Presidents’ Day officially honors the lives and legacies of two former U.S. presidents in particular – George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. But the holiday has come to stand as a day of appreciation for the service of all of the nation’s presidents, past and present.
In her recording Soul of a Nation: Portraits of Presidential Character (Albany Records), composer and conductor Victoria Bond brings the words and ideals of four illustrious commanders-in-chief into the limelight as spoken texts in four new musical works.
Each work is a concerto for solo instrument with string or wind ensemble and augmented by spoken narration that, in librettos written by Dr. Myles Lee, resound with the spirits of Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
“Each of these presidents had such an important role in shaping our American history,” Bond said in a recent phone interview. “For each of the presidents, I wanted to find the quintessential instrument that would represent his – and they’re all men – his personality and his time.”
To that end, the flute gives voice to Washington in Bond’s Pater Patriae: Concerto for Flute and Wind Ensemble.
“Because of the Revolutionary (War) era and fife and drum tunes, I figured the solo instrument for Washington would certainly be the flute,” Bond said.
The solo violin represents Jefferson in Bond’s Soul of a Nation: Concerto for Violin and String Ensemble
“Thomas Jefferson was himself a violinist,” Bond said. “Even though he didn’t perform in public, he played almost every day.”
Bond cast the exuberant Teddy Roosevelt as a solo trumpet in The Crowded Hours: Concerto for Trumpet and Wind Ensemble. Roosevelt’s distant cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt is represented by a solo clarinet in The Indispensable Man: Concerto for Clarinet and Wind Ensemble.
“Franklin Delano Roosevelt lived, of course, in the era of big band and Benny Goodman,” Bond said. “So it was a natural to have a clarinet solo and to reference music of the 1940s big band era, kind of jazzy work.”
The concertos on Soul of a Nation: Portraits of Presidential Character aren’t Bond’s first compositions inspired by the U.S. presidency. Bond earlier composed the opera Mrs. President, about Ohio native Victoria Woodhull who, in 1872, became the first woman ever to run for the highest office in the land.
In an era in which women were expected to occupy roles closely circumscribed within the domestic sphere, Woodhull’s presidential campaign and its coverage in the public sphere were nothing short of extraordinary.
“The epithets that were hurled at Victoria Woodhull make you cringe when you hear them,” Bond said. “She was actually called Mrs. Satan.”
The Act II finale of Mrs. President by Victoria Bond, performed by Anchorage Opera.
“She was pictured in Harper’s Weekly with horns on her head and a demonic expression,” Bond continued. “She was the wrecker of the family. And there’s still plenty of that sentiment going around. We have not overcome that yet.”
However, Bond says that, as demographics and opinions shift in America, she believes someday a woman will come to occupy the U.S. presidency – sooner or later.
Says Bond: “It is a glass ceiling, and it is going to shatter. There’s no question about that. It’s just a question of when.”