I cried during large parts of the inauguration ceremony, though Obama’s address left me rather cold. I thought Joseph Lowery and Aretha Franklin were the standout performers. Rick Warren was okay. The poem left me uninspired. Obama was pretty good, though it sounded more like a campaign speech than the an inaugural address. Conservative commentators who think that Obama’s call for an age of responsibility means a repudiation of “rights-based” discourse misunderstood his message. We all need a better sense of our responsibilities, especially our leaders and business executives, he was saying. Anyway didn’t Kennedy in his “ask not” say much the same thing? Anyway the hoo-ha about inaugural addresses is much exaggerated; only three addresses are remembered; Lincoln’s 2nd, FDR’s 1st, and Kennedy’s, and I don’t think this on that level, but its too early to tell. But the significance of the day, freighted with symbolism, was more important than anything anyone said or did.
I liked the classical interlude, though when you write a setting of “Simple Gifts” its going to sound a lot like Aaron Copland, which it did. I liked the marching band music, the Holst and the Sousa. But it was unheard music that I heard even more insistently. Pardon a few free associations. The music that I kept on hearing goes like this:
Heil sei dem Tag! Heil Sei der Stunde! Heil! Heil ! Heil!
When I think of music of celebration, of utter rapture and joy, the first music that always comes to mind is the opening of the last scene of Beethoven’s only opera Fidelio. The hero has just been rescued from prison, by the heroine, Leonora, and all the other prisoners (all unjustly imprisoned; they had been political prisoners) sing and rejoice on their liberation. “Hail to the day!,” they sing. “Hail to the hour! Hail, Hail, Hail!” It seems unfair but unavoidable that the German word “Heil” has forever been hijacked by the Nazis. But when Beethoven wrote Fidelio, his great hymn to human freedom around 1814, the Nazis were far in the future, and it seems cruel that Beethoven’s work on the power of freedom and the possibility of overcoming evil tyrannies has to be seen through the lens of the filthy murderers who turned Europe into a prison. So, a new era of freedom dawns; Heil, Heil, Heil!!!
Still, if this makes you uncomfortable, another piece of music comes to mind, the greatest piece of music, IMHO, ever written for the sort of event we celebrate today, the peaceful change of the head of state. I am thinking the second of George Frederick Handel’s coronation anthems, written in 1727 for the coronation of King George II, “Zadok the Priest.” I believe it has been played at every coronation of a British monarch ever since, and no one has ever written music of triumphal magnificence better than Handel (not even, Bruce Springsteen, Rob.) The words aren’t much: “Zadok the Priest and Nathan the Prophet/Annointed Solomon King/And all the people rejoic’d, and said/God save the King, long live the King/May the King live forever!/Amen, Alleluja!” but you have to hear the music, just flowing and bursting with majesty.
But via Matt Yglesias, let me give the last word to someone else, George Henry White, the last of the black Reconstruction members of Congress, who managed to hold onto his seat until the election of 1900. In his farewell speech, on January 21, 1901, he said:
This, Mr. Chairman, is perhaps the Negroes’ temporary farewell to the American Congress but let me say Phoenix-like he will rise up some day and come again. These parting words are on behalf of an outraged, heart-broken, bruised and bleeding, but God-fearing people. . . . The only apology I have for the earnestness with which I have spoken is that I am pleading for the life, the liberty, the future happiness, and manhood suffrage for one-eighth of the entire population of the United States.