Support the news

Sing Out, Mr. President: James Madison's Socratic Sarcasm

Throughout February, hear new works by contemporary composers based on words of 16 American presidents, in premiere recordings by conductor Judith Clurman and Essential Voices USA. Today, words from James Madison set by the late Milton Babbitt.

As conductor Judith Clurman rounded up composers for her Mr. President project, she gave them each an assignment. She handed them presidential quotes and told them to go make choral music out of them. Each finished piece couldn't be longer than two minutes, and it needed to be structured as a canon, or round.

Of all the 16 composers in the project, Clurman allowed only one to choose his own president and text. That was Milton Babbitt. The two musicians knew each other from their years teaching at Juilliard.

"The great Milton Babbitt told me he had to do Madison," Clurman says, "because he grew up on Madison street, he taught at Princeton, James Madison went to Princeton and the Madison building holds the music collection at the Library of Congress."

We planned to interview Babbitt about his piece, simply called "Round," a conventionally beautiful work, a world away from his typical atonal style. But his daughter Betty Anne Babbitt Duggan told me he wasn't feeling up to it. Five days later, Babbitt died; he was 94 years old. Two days later, thanks to composer and filmmaker Laura Karpman, we posted this terrific documentary about the composer and teacher.

Babbitt chose a text from Madison's Federalist Papers, a series of 85 essays commenting on the United States Constitution, of which Madison was the lead author. In Federalist Paper No. 55, Madison addresses how many people should be a part of the New York House of Representatives. He's worried that too many representatives would cause confusion, saying, "Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob."

"There's sarcasm in this text," Clurman points out. "And yet it's probably some of the most beautiful music in the cycle. Here Milton is writing a very beautiful vocal line, and suddenly we're saying, 'Hah! Listen to what he's saying. A citizen could be a Socrates, a thinker, but the assemblies would still be a mob, and they would still be carrying on.' I had the singers put a little sarcasm in."

Copyright NPR 2017.


+Join the discussion

More from WBUR

Support the news