Presidential Pairings: Music Written in Election Years

Feb 14, 2017

The year was 1788. Thomas Jefferson, nearing the end of his post as the Ambassador to France, spent his days wandering the streets of Paris, attending concerts and the theater, and combing through bookshops in search of any volumes that would be pertinent to the fledgling United States of America.

In Vienna, Austria, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart churned out more than 40 compositions, including the three symphonies that would be his last - numbers 39, 40, and 41.

And across the ocean, as more and more states ratified the U.S. Constitution, General George Washington began the campaign that resulted in his unanimous election as the new nation's first president.

This, to me, is a surprising confluence of events. I don't think I've ever considered the fact that, for example, Jefferson and Mozart might have known each other (which, as it turns out, they actually did - Jefferson briefly toyed with the idea of commissioning Mozart to write something for his wife, but ultimately decided against it).

I think it must have something to do with how I was taught history - in sections, with topics in distinct categories with little to no overlap. I'll admit it, I'm more than a little bit of a history nerd, and making connections between events like these is fascinating to me.

So I was very excited to learn that this Presidents Day Weekend, we're featuring music written or premiered in presidential election years.

You might find out, for example, that Ludwig van Beethoven's stunning Symphony No. 7 was written in 1812, the same year that James Madison beat DeWitt Clinton - a member of his own party - in the United States's 7th presidential election.

Or you could learn that 1876 was the year Rutherford B. Hayes beat Samuel J. Tilden by a single electoral vote that won him the presidency, all while Edvard Grieg was writing his famous Peer Gynt Suite.

And 20 years later, in 1896, Antonin Dvorák was busy finishing his Cello Concerto - and William McKinley's campaign manager brought 500,000 people by train to see him speak from his front porch. 

This weekend is a history nerd's dream, basically. We've partnered with American Experience to provide plenty of additional facts and stories on social media! Visit them at pbs.org/presidents, and find them on social platforms as @PresidentsPBS. We'll also share a lot of fun tidbits - follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Here's just a small sampling of some of the music you can look forward to hearing this weekend (in the order each piece was written, not in the order you'll hear them on the air). The dates link to @PresidentsPBS on Instagram, where you can read more about the presidents who were elected each of those years.

Friday
1808 - Beethoven - Symphony No. 5
1816 - Rossini - The Barber of Seville: Overture
1832 - Wagner - Symphony in C
1896 - Dvorák - The Water Goblin
1972 - Copland - Three Latin American Sketches

Saturday
1788 - Mozart - Symphony No. 41, "Jupiter"
1808 - Beethoven - Symphony No. 6, "Pastoral"
1824 - Schubert - Octet
1844 - Mendelssohn - A Midsummer Night's Dream: Overture
1868 - Grieg - Piano Concerto
1876 - Dvorak - Piano Concerto
1880 - Sullivan - The Pirates of Penzance: Overture
1888 - Tchaikovsky - Sleeping Beauty: Waltz
1900 - Rimsky-Korsakov - The Flight of the Bumblebee
1936 - Gershwin - Porgy & Bess
1940 - Copland - Quiet City
1956 - Bernstein - Candide: Overture

Sunday
1788 - Mozart - Symphony No. 40
1808 - Beethoven - Symphony No. 6, "Pastoral"
1872 - Saint-Saens - Cello Concerto No. 1
1876 - Dvorák - Piano Concerto
1896 - Strauss - Thus Spoke Zarathustra
1908 - Debussy - Children's Corner
1940 - Rodrigo - Concierto de Aranjuez
1944 - Copland - Appalachian Spring

Monday
1792 - Haydn - Symphony No. 94, "Surprise"
1812 - Beethoven - Symphony No. 7
1824 - Schubert - String Quartet No. 14, "Death and the Maiden"
1844 - Mendelssohn - Violin Concerto
1880 - Brahms - Academic Festival Overture
1920 - Holst - The Planets
1924 - Gershwin - Rhapsody in Blue
1928 - Ravel - Bolero
1944 - Khachaturian - Masquerade: Waltz