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Contemplating JFK: OBU Composer Homage to Kennedy’s Legacy with New Oratorio, The Glow From That Fire

By Kristen Stauffer Todd
OBU professor of music and humanities and chair, OBU Division of Music

For current OBU students, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, serve as a touchstone. Although most of them were between the young ages of seven and eleven at the time, they remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when the planes hit the World Trade Center in New York City. It is a defining moment in their childhood.

Many faculty and staff members at OBU have a similar touchstone. On Nov. 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, in a motorcade on his way to a luncheon at the Dallas Trade Mart. For those faculty and staff members born in the 1950s and early 1960s, they remember exactly where they were when they received word of Kennedy’s death. As predicted by journalist Joseph Dineen in the Nov. 24, 1963, Boston Globe article “Shock Like Pearl Harbor,” for them it is such a defining moment.

Composer James Vernon, professor of music and coordinator of composition studies at OBU, recalls parts of that event. At 3 years old and, therefore, not at an age where he can remember the events clearly, Vernon only remembers snapshots of it—especially watching Kennedy’s funeral on television with his parents and brothers.

“I was a day shy of my fourth birthday on the day he died,” Vernon said. “I only remember bits and pieces of the weekend in which the nation grieved publically through the medium of television—it was continuous coverage until after the funeral. My parents and their friends sat and watched and grieved with everyone else. It was only in the intervening years that I realized how much this president meant to people.”

The images of the rider-less horse, the caisson bearing the president’s casket, and the Kennedy family watching the processional are all etched in his mind. He remembers adults in his life upset at the death of this man, but of course, at age 4 (almost), he was not equipped to process the impact that this death would potentially have on his country.

“In the years to follow—the Vietnam War, the assassinations of his brother, Robert, and of Martin Luther King, Jr., Watergate—the country lost its ability to hold the office of President with reverence,” Vernon said. “But JFK continued to be remembered for the good things he accomplished and attempted to accomplish. And even today, as information continues to be compiled about his life and his all-too-humanness, we look fondly back to a time of great hope and how we together could accomplish great things.”

This year, 2013, marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Kennedy. There will undoubtedly be tributes and remembrances nationwide all year. The city of Dallas is planning an extensive tribute, as is the Kennedy Center for the Arts in Washington, D.C.

The OBU Division of Music has, for many years, sought to perform great works from the choral and orchestral repertoire. “The Oratorio Project,” as it has come to be known, has in recent years featured works by Mozart, Durufle, Puccini, Bernstein, Handel, and a commissioned work by former faculty member Dr. Michael Cox (“Symphonic Psalms,” 2004). The goal of the Oratorio Project is both aesthetic and pedagogical—to simultaneously acquaint students with significant works from the Western canon while also contributing to the musical life of Shawnee and central Oklahoma. Frequently these projects involve bringing in a guest artist to serve as the conductor, mass choir rehearsals, orchestra players from the Oklahoma City Philharmonic, and a great gathering of the OBU Music community.

Vernon’s memory of the assassination has special personal meaning, and he wanted to find a way to direct that memory into something significant and evocative.

Vernon composed “The Glow From That Fire,” inspired by the Inaugural Address given by President John F. Kennedy on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in January 1961.

“For several years, I have looked forward to finding a way to express myself to remember—even if only on a personal level—1963,” Vernon said. “As we approached 2013, I found myself searching for the right method to accomplish this. Early in 2012 I decided to research some writings and speeches of Kennedy and compose a work for the Bisonette Glee Club. In the middle of my research, I kept coming back to the Inaugural Speech, and decided to concentrate on this work as a text for the composition.”

While discussing the upcoming Oratorio Project for 2013 with Dr. Brent Ballweg, OBU director of choral activities, Vernon proposed that the work he was contemplating be written for mixed chorus and orchestra, and Ballweg agreed.

The resulting work is “The Glow From That Fire,” for mixed chorus, alto soloist, narrator and orchestra. Rather than focus exclusively on JFK’s assassination, Vernon chose the more challenging path of edification and enlightenment, and took as his impetus the January 1961 Inaugural Address Kennedy gave on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.

“Kennedy, the first president of the 20th century born in that century, brought an incredible amount of hope and energy to the office in January of 1961,” Vernon said. “War hero, published author, outstanding orator, youthful, visionary—the combination of Kennedy attributes after years of the American government being led through Depression, world wars, and post-war boom by aged and ‘old school’ politicians made JFK the young hope for America. His inaugural address on Jan. 20, 1961, is one of hope, courage, strength and American pride, and is considered one of the finest American speeches ever.”

For his piece, Vernon juxtaposes the 1961 inaugural address with the more traditional and conservative Requiem mass (Missa pro defunctis), or Mass for the Dead. Although customarily celebrated in the context of a funeral, innumerable composers have chosen portions of this rite for concert works, some to venerate a significant contributor to culture, politics or the military, and some simply to explore the aesthetic viability of these weighty texts. The aforementioned Durufle Requiem was composed in honor of the composer’s father, and the Verdi Requiem was written to venerate Italian poet Alessandro Manzoni. Most famously, of course, Mozart’s Requiem, though commissioned by Count Franz von Walzegg in memory of his wife Anna, was memorialized (erroneously) as having been commissioned by composer Antonio Salieri by Peter Schaeffer in his play Amadeus.

The Requiem differs from the usual mass in that the standard movements of the ordinary of the mass in that certain elements are omitted: the Gloria in excelsis Deo, Alleluia, and Credo are replaced by a Tract, and the sequence Dies irae (long a dramatic favorite of Western composers) is a required insertion in liturgical practice Vernon’s take on the Requiem is innovative and imaginative. Because the work is designed as a concert work rather than liturgical practice, he made choices with some of the texts he used, and found those that pair best with the excerpts from the Inaugural Address. In this way he is able to freely explore deeper meanings of both the Latin and English texts, and parallel the two in an inventive coupling.

For example, in the third movement, “Sanctus,” the Requiem text is “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabbath” (“Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts.”) This text traditionally continues “Hosanna in the highest—Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord—Glory be to Thee, O Lord, most high.” The Sanctus text is taken from Isaiah 6:3, the prophet’s vision of the throne of God, and Matthew 21:9, the narrative of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. The portion of the speech used here begins “In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.” Juxtaposing these two seemingly disparate texts illuminates both, giving rise to imagery of unification and integration, certainly goals of both texts. Interestingly, following the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), the role of the priest at this point in the mass was altered to call for the joining of hands and recitation the text of the Sanctus with the congregation—in unification.

Perhaps the most famous quotation from Kennedy’s speech, “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country” is paired with the text from the Libera me movement. Following a 28-measure orchestral ritornello, during which the orchestra grows thicker in texture, quicker in pulse, and louder in dynamics, the melodic motive that unifies the work (a pair of stacked fourths) returns with the line “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not…” Bracketing this line on either side is the alto soloist with the Requiem text “Libera me, Domine” (“Deliver me, O Lord”), providing the listener with aural imagery to match the meaning of both texts. Typically said immediately preceding burial, the Libera me text asks God to show mercy on the deceased at the impending Last Judgment. The symbolism of this adds considerable gravitas to Kennedy’s words “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country,” demonstrating the seriousness with which Kennedy, for one, took the idea of service to one’s community, one’s country, and one’s people.

The nascent theme of Kennedy’s fledgling presidency—of service, relief and comfort—is one of the themes of the speech that attracted Vernon to it initially. The idea of service and support not only resonates with Vernon, but with the entire OBU Division of Music. It is one of the three pillars of the Division of Music’s mission statement—academics, performance and service—and in this way the students and faculty now working and growing as artists at OBU are uniquely poised to perform what will undoubtedly become a significant work in the repertoire.

“I believe we have always been a great choral place, but because of Brent’s leadership, we are poised to do great things in the choral area,” Vernon said regarding the performance. “I do not hesitate to put a piece of this magnitude in the hands of these students and my colleague to prepare, because I know they are not only capable, they will greatly exceed the expectations I have for this piece. Every composer wants the perfect performance—and I am confident that with the current OBU choral program at my disposal, this work will be everything a composer could want.”

“The Glow From That Fire” will have its world premiere in Potter Auditorium in Raley Chapel on the campus of Oklahoma Baptist University. The concert, titled “Visions of Liberty,” will feature not only Vernon’s work, but also “Let Thy Hand Be Strengthened” (Coronation Anthem for King George II, 1727) by George Frederic Handel and Testament of Freedom (with texts by Thomas Jefferson) by Randall Thompson. The concert will be Tuesday, April 30, at 7:30 p.m., and is free and open to the public. For more information about the concert and its accompanying events, including lectures and roundtable discussions, please contact the OBU Division of Music at 405-514-2002 or via email at music@okbu.edu.

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