LBJ – The Book and the Concert Piece

Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestBy Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West
Lyndon Johnson, the inscrutably complex 36th President. Photo by Arnold Newman, White House Press Office

Thanks to the usual early-summer lull in the concert season, I have just finished reading the long-awaited fourth volume of Robert A. Caro’s massively eloquent biography of Lyndon Johnson, The Passage Of Power – and with one more volume to go, one can only hope that he and we live long enough to see the end of it.  There is no finer writer of political biographies working today; Caro’s mastery of rhetoric, his use of repetition for purposes of flow as well as reminding us of past material, makes his writing seem symphonic, even Wagnerian in its texture.  Like Wagner in his “Ring,” Caro is fascinated by the use of power – and with Johnson’s sudden ascension to the presidency, Caro tells us how Johnson subdued his most off-putting qualities and harnessed his still-unparalleled knowledge of how things work in the Congress with a wave of sympathy for the memory of Jack Kennedy to get some difficult things done. Johnson’s example makes one marvel that the current less-legislatively-gifted occupant of the White House was able to push through anything at all, let alone the biggest piece of social legislation since LBJ’s time –  the Affordable Care Act.

So in a bit of fortuitous serendipity (they couldn’t have timed it purposely with the release of Caro’s book and the Supreme Court decision on health care, could they?), the Dallas Symphony’s DSO Live label has issued the first recording of Steven Stucky’s 2008 Johnson centenary piece, August 4, 1964. To make it an even greater coincidence, Stucky’s piece picks up the Johnson story just a bit after Caro’s book breaks off – juxtaposing two incidents occuring on the same day that encapsulate the yin-yang of Johnson’s place in history. The first summons the visionary, compassionate Johnson upon the discovery of the bodies of three young murdered civil rights workers outside Philadelphia, Mississippi.  The other is the trigger that launched LBJ’s disastrous escalation of American involvement in Vietnam, the non-existent Gulf of Tonkin incident.  Gene Scheer’s libretto tries, with some success, to balance these coexisting sides of Johnson, and he includes some deep-rooted brush strokes that help to explain why Johnson acted as he did – particularly the aria combining his genuine passion to help poor people with his chronic insecurity about his hard-scrabble upbringing in the Texas Hill Country and resentment of Harvard men, particularly the Kennedys. (Interestingly, Stucky himself is a product of both worlds; he was raised in Texas and now teaches at an Ivy League school – Cornell).

More dramatic than a cantata, more static than an opera, often as solemn as an oratorio or requiem but entirely secular in content, the piece hovers somewhere between the genres. There are passages that allude to Britten and Adams, as well as a not-quite-camouflaged snippet of “We Shall Overcome” when LBJ reaches that point in his famous 1965 speech.  But one shouldn’t make too much of these “tributes,” for Stucky’s idiom is his own, and he achieves some powerful musical moments with it.  One thing I do find, though, is that this music doesn’t bring the real LBJ to life nearly as fully as the libretto does (Scheer often uses clippings from his actual speeches and his surreptitious White House tapes). How one does this without resorting to pastiche, I don’t know, and maybe it’s futile to try to capture the essence of such a folksy, cunning, compassionate, funny, verbally abusive, inscrutably complex Texan with European-based classical music anyhow.

In any case, it’s a serious piece that seriously grapples with issues that helped set the agenda pro and con for the political and culture wars that we’re still fighting today – and Stucky doesn’t allow himself a moment of lightening the load with mockery or fantasy in the manner of, say, Nixon In China.  LBJ’s lines are sung by baritone Rod Gilfry in a magnolia-laced accent perhaps closer to A Streetcar Named Desire than rural Texas, while defense secretary Robert McNamara is given over to an exciteable tenor voice (Vale Rideout). Jaap van Zweden conducts and his Dallas orchestra and chorus perform with evident authority, having given the piece some time to sink in since the 2008 premiere. Johnson supporters should neither be comforted nor repelled by this ambivalent musical monument to LBJ’s mixed legacy.