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Classical 101

Classical Music and the Vietnam War: From Lt. Dan to 'The Face of War'

USASOC News Service
Wikimedia Commons
Kimo Williams and Gary Sinise performed in the Lt. Dan Band at the Fort Bragg Fairgrounds in North Carolina on Sept. 14, 2012.

Classical music didn't see the same surge in new compositions responding to the Vietnam War that was reflected in popular music of the time. But in honor of this weekend's premiere of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's The Vietnam War(8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 17 on WOSU-TV), I decided to explore some of the era's lesser-known classical works informed by the turbulence of wartime.

The most notable event where classical music was used as a protest was perhaps when Leonard Bernstein led a performance of Haydn's Mass in Time of War at the Washington National Cathedral on Jan. 19, 1973, the evening before Richard Nixon's second inauguration. It was called "the anti-inauguration" by some. 

I did, however, find a couple of interesting examples of music written in direct response to the Vietnam War era in works by Kimo Williams and Elie Siegmeister.

Composer, musician and professor Kimo Williams moves across the boundary between rock and classical worlds in his music. He dedicated himself to music and playing the guitar when he saw Jimi Hendrix in concert in 1969 at the Waikiki Shell in Hawaii. Then he joined the army and served in Vietnam. Both of those experiences profoundly shaped his musical life and future.

Williams used his GI Bill money to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and his musical world expanded from rock to classical to the point of writing his Symphony for the Sons of Nam, which premiered in Savannah, Georgia, in 1990.

Other musical activities influenced by his military experiences include returning to rock to play electric guitar in a cover band at events to benefit military veterans. With actor Gary Sinise playing bass, they perform in the Lt. Dan Band, so named after the character played by Sinise in the 1993 movie Forrest Gump. The film starred Tom Hanks and included a major portion concerning the Vietnam War and his friend Lt. Dan becoming a disabled veteran.

This NPR interview from 2013 offers a fascinating look at Williams' life, some of his other musical projects and his dedication to helping wounded veterans.

Composer, teacher and author Elie Siegmeister was born in New York City in 1909, and was concerned with developing an authentic American musical vocabulary. His works show diverse influences, as would be appropriate for anything classified as "American" when you stop and think about it. His interest in the musical life of this country included serving on the board of directors of ASCAP from 1977 until his death in 1991.

Siegmeister's Western Suite from 1945 was performed by the NBC Symphony Orchestra and Arturo Toscanini. Leopold Stokowski, Dimitri Mitropoulos and other prominent conductors performed his works. He wrote Hollywood film scores and, among his books, the well-regarded "A Treasury of American Song" from 1940, co-authored with Olin Downes. 

The Face of War is a song cycle from 1966 by Siegmeister with a text by African-American writer Langston Hughes. The composer believed that an artist "must be rooted to a time and place," and his social and political concerns led Siegmeister to support civil rights and oppose the war in Vietnam.

Aside from the well-known anti-war event led by Bernstein in 1973, back in 1966 there was a Composers for Peace concert at Carnegie Hall that was organized by Siegmeister and a group of composers that included Aaron Copland, George Rochberg, Ulysses Kay, George Crumb and others.

A few weeks before the concert, Seigmeister had heard Hughes read his poems "The Face of War," and that inspired him to set them to music.    

The Face of War: Five Songs for Low Voice and Piano or Orchestra was eventually published but apparently not performed all that often. The titles of the individual songs are suggestive: "Official Notice," "Listen Here, Joe," "The Dove," Peace" and "War."

Here's a sample from one of the few recordings. I think I'd like to end with "Peace":