Some of the most memorable moments of the JFK era came when the president, playing the role of patron of the arts, invited accomplished musicians -- including Leonard Bernstein, Pablo Casals and Isaac Stern -- to perform at the White House.
Other presidents continued the tradition of showcasing a wide variety of musical talent. Jimmy Carter invited Vladimir Horowitz, Leontyne Price, Mtislav Rostropovich and others for a televised event that came to be called “In Performance at the White House.”
Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald and Beverly Sills performed for Ronald Reagan; Harry Connick Jr., Loretta Lynn and Johnny Mathis for George H.W. Bush; Aretha Franklin, B.B. King and Linda Ronstadt for Bill Clinton; James Brown, Lionel Hampton and Itzhak Perlman for George W. Bush; and Ray Charles, Audra McDonald and James Taylor for Barack Obama.
The last installment of PBS’s “In Performance at the White House” was broadcast in 2016. It appears that only the United States Marine Corps Band performs at the White House under the current president.
Thomas Jefferson called music “the favorite passion of my soul,” but Donald Trump has other passions. His indifference to music is not his principal flaw, but it is a disturbing one, potentially symptomatic of treachery, according to Lorenzo in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”:
“The man that hath no music in himself,
"Nor is not mov’d with concorn of sweet sounds,
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"Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils; The motions of his spirit are dull as night, And his affections dark as Erebus: Let no such man be trusted.”
For all his other defects, Richard Nixon had music in himself and expressed it on the piano and by composing something he called “Richard Nixon Piano Concerto #1.” Harry Truman also played the piano, Clinton, the saxophone; John Quincy Adams, the flute; and John Tyler and Woodrow Wilson, the violin. Can we expect anything but discord from a man who not only has no music in himself but would deny it to others?
For three consecutive years, Trump’s proposed budget has eliminated funding at all for the National Endowment for the Arts that provide crucial grants to orchestras, choral ensembles, songwriters, jazz artists, chamber groups and folk musicians in every part of the United States. Congress has responded to attempts at eliminating the NEA by not just restoring its funding but actually increasing its budget.
In a glamorous televised event, the Kennedy Center Honors Awards are conferred for outstanding lifetime achievements in the arts. Trump has broken precedent by choosing not to attend during each year of his presidency, avoiding the opportunity to pay tribute to the musical talents of Gloria Estefan, Philip Glass and Wayne Shorter, as well as leading figures in other arts.
The one art form that interests. Trump is the art of the deal, though the book about it published under his byline was ghostwritten by someone else. Its only reference to music is hostile: “I punched my music teacher,” Trump recalls, “because I didn’t think he knew anything about music and I almost got expelled.”
Trump would seem to exhibit the symptoms of musical anhedonia, an inability to enjoy music, said to afflict 3-5% of the population. However, human manipulation of pitch, rhythm, dynamics and timbre in order to produce pleasure can be traced to at least Paleolithic times. Discovery of the Divje Babe Flute in northwestern Slovenia demonstrated that humans have been constructing musical instruments for at least 40,000 years. The human voice was probably singing long before that.
Music has served the evolutionary goal of creating social bonding and enforcing empathy. Only narcissists trapped within the solitary confinement of their own emotional dungeons are incapable of feeling anything while listening to the late Beethoven quartets, Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue,” or “West Side Story.”
Marching band, a rock group, a jazz ensemble or a symphony orchestra demand attentiveness, discipline and a willingness to subordinate the individual to the team. Those are all desirable — if not essential — qualities in an elected leader responsible for achieving harmony among diverging views and interests.
William Congreve’s famous dictum, “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast,” does not necessarily mean that music is the only way to do it. Perhaps golf and tweeting can be as effective. But the contemporary world is too perilous a place to risk the savagery of a leader with no taste for music.
Steven G. Kellman, who teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio, wrote this for The Baltimore Sun (TNS).