Steven Stucky: August 4, 1964
Dallas Symphony Orchestra and
Chorus/Jaap van Zweden
Date of recording: May 6,
Place of recording: Meyerson
Symphony Center, Dallas, Texas
In Texas, especially
in Austin where he lived most of his life and where his library is located, 36th President of the United States ((1963-1969), Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ), is a legendary figure. The Johnson ranch, just outside the
capital, is visited by thousands every year, and the library hosts major
speakers and conferences.
LBJ was a native son of
Texas who became president of the United States under horrendous circumstances
- the assassination of President John F. Kennedy November 22, 1963 on the
streets of Dallas. It was the Dallas Symphony that commissioned a work to
commemorate the Johnson centenary in 2008.
The deaths of the
Mississippi civil rights workers moved LBJ to launch an FBI investigation and
led to landmark civil rights legislation that ended segregation. For that, LBJ
is remembered as one of America’s greatest presidents. The Gulf of Tonkin
incident, on the other hand, prompted him to an overreaction to events that may
or may not have occurred and ultimately sent tens of thousands of American
troops to Vietnam to fight what was ultimately seen to be a futile and
The Vietnam War
ultimately destroyed LBJ’s presidency and quite possibly hastened the death of
the man himself.
In conflating these
two events, Stucky and Sheer have tried to capture the essence of the Johnson
years in Washington; ultimately, Johnson is defined in the piece as a misguided
figure who totally misunderstood America’s role in Vietnam and made the decisions
that led to 58,000 U.S. and 3.7 million
While history has
been kind to LBJ on the civil rights issue, in the Stucky piece he is depicted
as somewhat passive in the face of the killings of the three young civil rights
workers. If the idea of the centenary commission was to honour LBJ, the donors to
the project may well have been taken aback by this depiction of the President.
August 4, 1964 is not a great piece and it fails for
a variety of reasons, starting with the libretto. If this were an opera, we
would have characters like LBJ, his Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (photo: left) and
the mothers of the slain civil rights workers playing their historic roles,
with LBJ at the center of it all as a troubled but ultimately tragic figure.
In real life,
McNamara later admitted that he had failed to understand the Vietnam War and had
made terrible decisions. He was a truly pitiful figure and could be rendered as
a riveting character on stage.
But this work is not
an opera. Instead, we have the above-named characters appearing from time to
time singing more or less their own words as we know them, often in the Oval
Office, with, at one point, a poem by Stephen Spender thrown into the mix; unfortunately,
there is no clear dramatic arch to the text except that the work quotes Spender
at the beginning and the end using poetic language that is really too abstract
either to focus the mind or to touch the heart.
The characters in
Stuckey’s piece never come to life, least of all Johnson; at the end, we have
neither a new appreciation of his strengths and weaknesses nor a better
understanding of his feelings about much of anything.
While using it not
only as a unifying device in the work, but also as a commentary on the events
depicted, I wonder if Sheer and Stucky really understand the Spender poem,
which is clearly a tribute to the power of the solitary artist or activist.
Spender (photo: right) himself said
that when he wrote it at age 21 he had in mind “Beethoven’s late quartets,
movies by Eisenstein of heroic workers and so on, D.H. Lawrence’s ideas about
sex and perhaps Michelangelo’s sculpture” (The Poetry Archive). While it seems obvious
that Sheer and Stucky are applying this message to the three civil rights
workers murdered in fighting for a just cause
(they quote Goodman’s mother saying that “when my son was killed I put some
lines on the wall of my apartment in New York City”), the work is ultimately
about LBJ. Listeners might well take away the impression that the words of
Goodman’s mother - “I think continually of those who were truly great” - were meant
to apply to LBJ.
It seems to me that
any composer writing a work of this kind must ask him/herself, “What is to be
gained by having this text sung rather than spoken.” In the case of real people
appearing in August 4, 1964 singing
their own words, too often my response was “Nothing.” Even worse, in many
cases, including some in this instance, when text is sung rather than spoken,
intelligibility flies out the window.
11 – the penultimate movement - was a late addition and came to be known as “McNamara’s
Lament.” While it alludes to McNamara’s latter day self-flagellation over the
Vietnam War, and gives the concert drama, at least in small measure, a point of
view it otherwise lacks, for many people who opposed the Vietnam War it will
seem too mild a rebuke of government leaders who let American hubris get the
better of them. Incidentally, as printed in the CD booklet, the name ‘McNamara’
is left off the sub-heading for Movement 11.
Without a better
libretto, composer Stucky had one hand tied behind his back before he started. That
said, the music itself is disappointingly mundane and unmemorable. To relieve
the relentless mournfulness of the subject matter, the composer and librettist
give us a somewhat contrived scene in the middle of the piece depicting the
battle in the Gulf of Tonkin. Although skillfully written for soloists, orchestra
and chorus, the music comes across as uninspired.
reservations about the quality of the piece itself, this recorded performance
certainly makes the best possible case for the work. The chorus and orchestra
produce a glorious sound and under Jaap van Zweden every detail seems to be in
its proper place. The dynamic range is colossal thanks to van Zweden, the
Meyerson Symphony Center and the recording engineers.
While I think August 4, 1964 has serious structural
and conceptual problems, this concert drama is nonetheless an important
reminder of the great and terrible events it commemorates.
Labels: 1964, assassination JFK, August 4, Dallas Symphony Orchesta, DSO Live DSOL-4, Jaap van Zweden, LBJ, Meyerson Symphony Center, Stephen Spender, Steven Stucky, Vietnam War