“Every presidential administration, every one, had some love of music and some way to show that by inviting artists to the White House. Looking at music in the White House shows us a wonderful picture of American culture, how we grew as a culture and how our character has changed,” said Elise K. Kirk, Emerita Director of the White House Historical Society.
Kirk is currently preparing a revised edition of her book Music at the White House: A History of the American Spirit, first published in 1986 and scheduled to be reissued in 2017. She has been researching music at the White House for decades ever since she developed an interest in the topic as a graduate student.
“It opened up a wonderful area for me because I learned a lot about my country and the presidents of the United States,” she said. “And I got interested in American music because so much that is performed in the White House is American. More American music has been performed at the White House than any place, even Carnegie Hall or the Kennedy Center.”
After finding almost no secondary literature on music at the White House, she dug into archives in presidential libraries and museums, the Smithsonian Institution, and the National Archives. There, she said, “I looked at what was purchased in the White House since the times of Thomas Jefferson. I found not only purchases of instruments but also vouchers for piano tuners that were tied up with a kind of red tape and wax seal. I had to laugh because this was the original ‘red tape.’”
Though Kirk has gotten her hands literally dirty in the archives, she is more interested in “looking at the long skein of history. I like to write something that allows you to look back and see what might’ve developed.”
What are the biggest developments in American musical culture that we can see reflected through a history of music at the White House? Kirk says that we can see “a gradual change in accepting all kinds of music. We begin to accept music from all countries and also our own popular music. At the White House people wanted to hear music that was popular.”
Kirk also highlighted ten U.S. presidents who changed music in America through the music they presented at the White House. Find her list below, or learn about music at the White House during every presidential administration here.
Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)
Ulysses Grant (1869-1877)
Rutherford Hayes (1877-1881)
Chester Arthur (1881-1885)
Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)
The company helped arrange for internationally acclaimed artists to appear, even covering their fees and expenses. One of the most famous pianists to visit the White House during Roosevelt’s administration was also a statesman himself: Ignacy Jan Paderewski. He was not just an excellent pianist and composer, he was also the Prime Minister of Poland. In 1902, he performed a concert that included Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 and set of works by Chopin.
Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961)
The Eisenhower administration, however, set a precedent for the administration that followed, of bringing in large performing arts organizations, rather than only individual artists or chamber groups. “For example, he brought in the New York Philharmonic at the end of his administration, but it got no attention,” Kirk explained.
John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)
But one of the most important contributions to the arts the Kennedys made is that they “brought in complete organizations. With American Ballet Theater, they brought in the whole organization rather than just one artist.” Washington National Opera, New York City Center Light Opera Company, Opera Company of Boston, the Metropolitan Opera Studio, and the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra also made visits to the White House during Kennedy’s brief administration. Because the Kennedys captured the imagination of the American media and the public, a wide audience was exposed to the artists they hosted.
Richard Nixon (1969-1974)
Jimmy Carter (1977-1981)
Jimmy Carter loved classical music. Apparently, his secretary Susan Clough was required to play classical music records for 8-10 hours a day! During his time in office, the White House hosted live performances by chamber groups including the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Alexandria Quartet, Tokyo String Quartet, and Guarneri String Quartet, and soloists such as Rudolf Serkin, Robert White, Shirley Verrett, Isaac Stern, and Andre Previn.
Perhaps Carter’s biggest musical achievement was working with PBS to develop a five-part series of performances taped at the White House including programs with Rostropovich, Leontyne Price, Baryshnikov, Segovia, and Vladimir Horowitz. “The relationship he started with PBS is a milestone in the country’s musical history, without question. The Reagans gave televised events a little more show and glamour, but it was Carter who laid the groundwork for what would become In Performance at the White House.”
Barack Obama (2009-2017)
“The Obamas have had a magnificent array of popular musicians at the White House and it’s interesting to see that they respect all kinds of music from classical music to rap, to rock-and-roll,” Kirk said. “The Clintons did too. But the Obamas have continued trends that we see throughout history in the White House to be as inclusive as possible in the kind of musicians they present.”