Watchmen on the Walls of Freedom

Forty years later, JFK speaks in Austin via Dan Welcher's Oratorio

Watchmen on the Walls of Freedom
Illustration By Nathan Jensen

More than 5,000 Austinites were waiting to welcome the president of the United States to their city. Each had paid $100 for the privilege. Elaborate preparations had gone into making this final stop on the president's Texas tour a grand affair. The Municipal Auditorium -- yet to be named in honor of Lester E. Palmer, who was still Austin's mayor at the time -- was festively decorated. Members of the Longhorn Band were providing the musical fanfare. Hundreds of plates were set out for dinner. The steaks were being cooked.

But the guest of honor never arrived.

Hours before he was scheduled to board Air Force One and fly to Austin, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The city that had so enthusiastically anticipated his arrival was left waiting, and in a sense, still waits for him today.

As a city, Austin remains much more familiar with the man who succeeded him that fateful day: the native son who served his state in Congress for more than two decades, who became Kennedy's vice-president, who launched the Great Society, whose memory lives on in the presidential library located here, whose initials still ID the radio stations that were part of his broadcasting holdings. We are the city of LBJ.

This weekend, Austin waits no longer. Through local composer Dan Welcher's JFK: The Voice of Peace, being performed by the Austin Symphony with the UT Choral Arts Society, a longstanding debt is finally being paid in Texas' state capital. The oratorio features selections from some of Kennedy's most famous speeches -- his Inaugural Address, the establishment of the Peace Corps in 1961, the "Family of Man" speech delivered just two weeks before that day in Dallas -- narrated by veteran broadcaster Hugh Downs.

This isn't the first time the work has been performed locally. Craig Hella Johnson and the Conspirare Choir presented it at their New Texas Festival just two months after its 1999 world premiere in Boston. But its performance this week is significant in terms of place and time, in the shadow of that monumental edifice bearing the name of the man who filled out Kennedy's term, and at a time when the country wrestles again with war.


Premonitions

Forty years may seem too long for anyone to keep waiting, but for many that lived through his presidency and the trauma of his murder, JFK exerts a powerful pull.

He was impossibly young and glamorous, an American Arthur drawn from the royalty of Massachusetts to wield Excalibur on the New Frontier. His presidency marked a turning point for the country, a shift toward the future, toward an embrace of technology, of tolerance and hope. Out of his thousand days in office came new civil rights initiatives, the Peace Corps, the Alliance for Progress in Latin America, a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union and Britain, and the commitment to reach the moon.

Peter Bay, the ASO director conducting JFK: The Voice of Peace, was a schoolboy when Kennedy was killed, but the president left an indelible impression on him nevertheless.

"I grew up in Washington, D.C., so I couldn't help but be aware of the White House and its inhabitants," he says. "When he was killed, I was a second-grader at a Catholic elementary school called Calvert School. It was several doors east from its parent church, St. Matthew's Cathedral, which is the head of the Catholic diocese in Washington [and] ... was the site of JFK's funeral Mass; that famous moment of John John saluting his father after the funeral took place at the foot of the stairs in front of the cathedral.

"As I remember it, school was canceled that day, but students at Calvert School were asked to come and sing not for the actual funeral Mass, but for a Mass which preceded the funeral. This was the service at which I sang as part of a children's choir. So JFK's death is a moment in history that will always have a significant part in my life.

"What I remember from watching television during that time was Jack Ruby's murder of Lee Harvey Oswald. I remember that footage and all the sadness of the funeral procession from St. Matthew's through the streets of my hometown to Arlington Cemetery. The riderless horse, the eternal flame, a veiled Mrs. Kennedy."

Those images continue to resonate four decades later; sadness reverberating for an untimely and violent demise, the uncertainty about JFK's murder and sense of promise forever unfulfilled -- something left unresolved in a nation's heart.


Dreams

Six years ago this month, Dan Welcher was approached about that unsettled space. New Heritage Music, a national organization that commissions new compositions inspired by events and individuals in American history, wanted an oratorio about the 35th president of the U.S., one that would celebrate his ideals and achievements, specifically regarding the promotion of peace in the world. Although the prospect of capturing the character of this man and his era in a work of music seemed "overwhelming," the UT professor of composition accepted the challenge.

The oratorio was conceived with excerpts from JFK's speeches included, but Welcher added other voices to reflect the president's ideas and the lives he touched. To supply these texts, Welcher turned to a collaborator he knew very well, writer/musician Ann McCutchan, to whom he was married at the time.

McCutchan drew JFK's words from his first day as president to his last. Around them, she threaded excerpts from: JFK's favorite poem, "I Have a Rendezvous With Death," by World War I poet Alan Seeger; Shakespeare's Henry V; poems by Robert Frost and Langston Hughes; letters from Peace Corps volunteers in El Salvador and Nepal; a poem by a Liberian child who learned English from Peace Corps volunteers; and a poem recited at JFK's christening.

"I remember working on the final part of the piece," e-mails Welcher, "in which the assassination is described by two Peace Corps volunteers. I was in Bellagio, Italy, at a beautiful artist's retreat on Lake Como, and for a week I would show up to dinner with red eyes.

"'What in the world are you working on?' the other colonists would ask me, and all I could say was, 'They killed him.' I cried for a week while writing that part of the piece."

The earnestness he was after can be heard in the solo cello that is a major presence in the oratorio. Its plaintive voice is at once a representation of JFK, a lonely dove circling above, and of us, the American people, mourning the loss of a great statesman and visionary.

Peter Bay calls JFK: The Voice of Peace one of Welcher's finest achievements.

"It goes directly to the heart," he enthuses. "Even though as a musician and conductor I can marvel at how he's put it all together in a technical sense, I'm amazed at how the emotions of the piece hit me so quickly."


Legacy

The work's premiere in Boston four years ago was an extraordinary occasion. The audience included members of the Kennedy family, 600 former Peace Corps volunteers dressed in the native costumes of the countries where they'd served (among them one of the authors of a letter quoted in the work), and 42 newly trained Peace Corps volunteers headed for Senegal.

When the piece was over, Welcher was called forward to bow.

"The wave of emotion that hit me from the audience made me gasp out loud," he recalls. "I still remember feeling as though I was floating."

Obviously, Austin is not Boston. This performance will be far removed from that one in its proximity to the life of its subject. Still, ASO's presentation will be just as personal in its way -- in its connections to John Kennedy's life, in its connections to the current occupant of the White House as well as LBJ, in its connections to a country torn over its engagement in a conflict overseas. We feel these ties, and for many of us, they remain unresolved in our hearts.

These are the words that John Kennedy never got to say in Dallas so long ago:

"We in this country, in this generation are -- by destiny rather than choice -- the watchmen on the walls of freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility, that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint, and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of 'peace on earth, goodwill toward men.'"

The voice of JFK, unheard in Austin 40 years ago, may be heard now, and it has something to say to our unsettled hearts. end story


The Austin Symphony performs JFK: The Voice of Peace Nov. 7 and 8 at Bass Concert Hall. For more information, call 476-6064.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Welcher, John F. Kennedy, JFK: The Voice of Peace, Dan Welcher, Peter Bay, Austin Symphony, UT Choral Arts Society, New Heritage Music, Ann McCutchan

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