“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth,” Kennedy said. “But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.”
Twenty-seven days later, Kennedy was assassinated.
That speech had such a major impact on the Amherst Class of 1964 that they formed a nonprofit organization, Reunion '64, Inc., and produced a book and documentary about the speech titled “JFK: The Last Speech.”
Now, one of the members of the organization is working with a renowned composer to honor the speech even further — with a symphony of the same name getting its world premiere at the Colorado Music Festival.
The Colorado Music Festival’s annual six-week summer concert season attracts musicians from many orchestras to play at Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder. The program of more than 22 concerts includes notable world premieres.
Neil Bicknell, a Boulder resident, is working with renowned American composer Adolphus Hailstork to create a new work that includes lines from JFK’s Amherst speech interspersed with lines from poems by Robert Frost.
Bicknell said he is excited to see the project develop.
“We feel that there's a contribution that can be made by the words and values of Kennedy, and that young people need icons that they can look up to,” Bicknell said.
CMF Music Director Peter Oundjian says “JFK: The Last Speech” is quite remarkable as a concept for a symphony.
“The idea of commemorating it now with an orchestral piece, and using the opportunity to have poetry and prose juxtaposed and to put the poetry in the hands of a female voice we felt would be very beautiful because of the tenderness of a lot of Frost poems,” Oundjian said. Baritone Eric Owens will narrate the excerpts from Kennedy’s speech.
Hailstork’s prolific work includes symphonies, operas, concertos, chamber music, and in January 2021 he became only the second Black composer to feature at a presidential inauguration with his Fanfare on Amazing Grace. Hailstork describes his musical approach for this work as lyrical.
“People say that JFK's speech is the best he ever gave, perhaps because he had lyricism in his speech itself. And of course there's lyricism in the poetry,” Hailstork said. “I hope it works in some kind of effective way that is a respectful setting of thewords of John F. Kennedy and a respectful setting of the poetry of Robert Frost.That's what it's all about.”
Near the end of his speech, President Kennedy spoke about the place of arts in American culture.
“I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens,” Kennedy said. “And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well. And I look forward to a world which will be safe not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction.”
“JFK: The Last Speech” has its world premiere at the Colorado Music Festival July 16. It will then be performed by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra,The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, and The National Symphony Orchestra in October. The piece will also be performed at Amherst College later this year.
Editor's Note: The Colorado Music Festival is a financial supporter of CPR News, but has no editorial influence.
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