Throughout February, we've presented new works by contemporary composers based on words of 16 American presidents, in recordings by conductor Judith Clurman and Essential Voices USA. Today, words from the current Commander-in-Chief come alive in music by Georgia Stitt.
Barack Obama, our 44th president, embodies the dream of what is possible in America.
From his middle-class, multicultural roots — which range from Kenya to Kansas — he worked his way through college and Harvard Law School, returned to his adopted hometown of Chicago to work as a civil rights lawyer, got elected to the U.S. Senate, and on Jan. 20, 2009 was sworn in as the first African-American president of the United States.
On that day, Obama was handed a country suffering through wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, a severely battered economy and high unemployment. It was a situation that prompted him to declare, in his inaugural address, "With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come."
As an admirer of Obama, composer Georgia Stitt says those words are especially meaningful.
"I think Obama is very inspiring," Stitt says. "Just the first few words, 'with hope and virtue,' he's calling us to be filled with hope and to be virtuous people." She chalks some of that up to the president's skills as an orator. But Stitt, who set Obama's words to music for the Mr. President project, believes it's more that just eloquent speech.
"That's what he calls for us to do," she says. "And he acknowledges it's not going to be easy, and there will be icy storms, there will be challenges, but if we are hopeful and virtuous we have the power to do that."
To finish off Stitt's Obama quote with a flourish, she and Judith Clurman, who commissioned the music, tacked on the president's famous campaign chant "Yes we can."
"Every time I come to Washington now when it's cold, I remember getting up and standing outside on the green at 5:30 in the morning," Clurman says. "I support Barack Obama and I had to see that inauguration. But the day before, I kept saying to my husband and son, 'He better give me a line – we need a line, because the Mr. President series will not be complete unless we get a Barack Obama line.'"
Clurman got her line alright. Then she immediately sent the text, along with a few instructions, to the young Broadway composer in California. Stitt says she says finished the piece, titled "With Hope and Virtue," in a little over a day.
"When Judy Clurman brought it to me she specifically wanted the piece to be a canon, and she wanted it to be at the high school level," Stitt says. "My piece is only one minute long. It's just a little morsel, but it's celebratory, and I specifically wrote it in a range where it could be sung by high school students without too much trouble. It's in three-part harmony, which is a traditional gospel choir setting."
Stitt has heard her song sung by adults, Broadway theatre voices and by classical voices. She says it's simple enough to transcend any vocal boundaries. Clurman, though, had a specific plan in mind for the music.
"When I recorded this," she says, "I let the octet of singers begin the piece and then had the rest of the group join in, and they all sing 'yes we can' at the end. It's quite beautiful."
For Clurman, the entire series of president's songs, all 16 of them, can be performed in a number of vocal configurations.
"There's no right way or wrong way to perform these pieces," Clurman says. "I bet that when I pick them up over the next few years, I'm going to do them completely differently and with different personnel singing. And they'll still be as meaningful and as wonderful as they are."
"Each one is a jewel, and I'm really proud that I brought them to the world."
About The Composer
Georgia Stitt is a composer and a lyricist. Her musicals include Big Red Sun, The Water, Sing Me A Happy Song, Mosaic, and Hello! My Baby. Stitt's non-theatrical compositions include several choral pieces, A Better Resurrection, The Promise of Light, Let Me Sing For You, Echo, De Profundis and Joyful Noise (a setting of Psalm 100). She contributed songs to the American Music Festival in Tono, Japan and served as composer-in-residence for the Tribeca Performing Arts Center in New York City. Her albums, This Ordinary Thursday and Alphabet City Cycle, a song cycle for soprano and violin featuring vocalist Kate Baldwin are both available from PSClassics and iTunes. Additionally, Stitt contributed two songs to the MTV original movie The American Mall. She was the vocal coach for the NBC hit show America's Got Talent and assistant music director for the NBC TV special Clash of the Choirs, the on-camera vocal coach for the NBC reality TV show Grease: You're The One That I Want, and the Production Music Coordinator for the Disney/ABC TV musical Once Upon A Mattress, starring Tracey Ullman and Carol Burnett. She is represented on the solo albums of Susan Egan, Lauren Kennedy, Daniel Boys, Kevin Odekirk and Caroline Sheen.
Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.