Jimmy Carter, Opera Lover
- From: "Little Jimmy Olsen" <seniorcubreporter@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Wed, 16 Nov 2005 16:26:11 GMT
President Jimmy Carter
Classical music has always played some role in Washington under all our
presidents, typically an after dinner recital for a visiting head of State,
but I think it is fair to say that no President has more embraced classical
music, made it such a prominent feature of White House life as my guest
today President Jimmy Carter. President Carter, welcome to the show.
Well, it's great to be with you and all your listeners.
Actually, it is we, I suppose, who should be thanking you for welcoming us
as this broadcast is on location today at The Carter Center in Atlanta. Now,
we'll be exploring the role of music during your White House years shortly,
but I'd like to start by talking about one of the composers on your rich and
fascinating musical selections you've brought us today. Sigmund Romberg,
best known for his 70 or so operettas. Why Sigmund Romberg?
Well, when Rosalynn and I were in the Navy in my earliest days of married
life, we made a total of $300 a month and we spent over $150 on food and
lodging which only left us a little bit. But I was assigned to go to
Philadelphia to learn about pending new radar equipment and one night we
decided to splurge and went out to an actual restaurant and afterwards we
went to Sigmund Romberg's performance of The Student Prince. It was so
overwhelming to us to hear this music in live that I guess became a little
more romantic than usual and that night we decided to have our first child,
so our oldest son Jack was conceived that night after we heard The Student
Prince. So we've always talked about that every time we've gone to
Philadelphia and then later of course we were able to Heidelberg and hear
Romberg's music again.
[Music: Sigmund Romberg: The Student Prince (Overture)]
The overture of Sigmund Romberg's The Student Price with the Philharmonia
Orchestra. This is Gilbert Kaplan and we're visiting with President Jimmy
Carter at The Carter Center in Atlanta and talking about the romantic power
Now Mr. President, 30 years after hearing Student Prince you entered the
White House and you announced a new initiative - a Sunday afternoon concert
series each featuring a legendary performer: Horowitz, Rostropovich,
Segovia, Leontyne Price and broadcast directly from the White House. At the
time you said, "We are trying at the White House to prove that opera and
classical music are not just a luxury for the few but a thing of beauty for
all." What was the idea behind that?
Well, we wanted to have something special particularly with the advent of
the video programs so on Sunday afternoons we had those performers you
mentioned plus also a performance by Baryshnikov who danced, of course, for
the nation - in fact a worldwide audience - it was a tremendous viewer ship.
And as a matter of fact, one of the things that I wanted Horowitz to do when
he came was to play Rachmaninoff because when I was a midshipmen in the
Naval Academy my roommate, his name was Robert Scott, and he was a classical
pianist. He was a champion pianist in the high school in Arizona. So we used
to play Rachmaninoff's concertos. We didn't have much money then either -
I'm not trying to present a poverty picture but we only got $4.00 a month to
spend, so we spent all our money on classical music and we would get
Rachmaninoff's Concertos by Horowitz, by Rachmaninoff himself and by
Rubinstein and compare their techniques and how to play it. So when
Rachmaninoff was my choice, Horowitz agreed to play it. When Mr. Horowitz
came to the White House on Saturday afternoon to get ready, we had the East
Room prepared with a platform there, he brought his own Steinway piano, but
he thought the room was too harsh sounding. So I went upstairs myself, with
my blue jeans on, as President of the United States, and brought down a
oriental carpet and Horowitz and I placed that carpet at different places
against the platform until he was satisfied that the resonance in the room
suited him. But this is one of the high points of my life to sit there and
hear Rachmaninoff's music played by Mr. Horowitz, who had in the past always
refused to come to the White House.
Well, I know that he actually had been at the White House once before, in
1931, for President Hoover and every President had tried to get him back but
you succeeded. It was a real coup. But tell me, among the competition
between Horowitz and Rubinstein and Rachmaninoff himself with your roommate,
who was the winner?
I have to admit we that we had a difference of opinion. I liked Horowitz
best. My roommate who is an expert on piano liked Rubinstein. He thought
Rubinstein was more crisp in his performance. But I think at the White House
that Sunday afternoon Horowitz proved to the world that no one could outdo
him in playing Rachmaninoff's concertos.
Well, in deference to your roommate, why don't we play Rubinstein's
recording of Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto, the first movement.
[Music: Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2 (first movement)]
Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto, Arthur Rubinstein with the Chicago
Symphony Orchestra led by Fritz Reiner. This is Gilbert Kaplan with
President Jimmy Carter, my guest today on Mad About Music.
Now, Mr. President, all Presidents often talk about the loneliness of the
job because after all the wisdom you get from your advisors it always falls
to you, the President, alone, to make a decision. And you had to make some
big ones when you were in the White House. Whether to normalize our
relations with China, whether to attempt a rescue mission of our hostages.
At such solitary moments, did you ever turn to music?
I really can't say that there was any one particular piece of music that I
would play when I was facing a difficult decision. I played a lot of Willie
Nelson, as a matter of fact. There was a very large collection of 33 RPM
recordings when I got to the White House and I had the sound engineers come
into the White House and arrange for this music to be played by my secretary
whose small office was just adjacent to the Oval Office and then I have a
private office behind that and I would guess for ten hours a day she would
play musical selections that she or I chose and when she played some more
esoteric selections with which I was not familiar, she would put a stack of
3x5 cards on my desk so that I could turn from one to another and know what
was being played. Sometimes when I was on the telephone, I would forget to
turn the sound down low enough and sometimes members of the Congress would
complain later to my staff that they had a difficult time understanding what
I was telling them because the music in the background was overwhelming.
Well, those recordings, I guess about 2,000, were actually the legacy of
your predecessor Richard Nixon and 50 of them were classical, I understand.
President Nixon's favorite recording apparently was Richard Rogers' Victory
at Sea. Do you have a favorite recording?
Well, I have a tremendous collection now of CDs and a very good high
fidelity system in my office at home and also in my office here at The
Carter Center. I would say that my favorite recording of all is about 17 or
18 arias on a CD called Aria: A Passion for Opera. And I listen to it over
and over again. Some of the recordings to me are not very superb. Maria
Callas has a recording on the same CD that I think - I think she's off key.
But, the best one I think is Mirella Freni signing La Rondine from Puccini.
If anybody's interested, it's No. 16 on the CD. But that is to me
overwhelming. No matter what I'm doing with music in the background, when
that particular recording comes on I just have to stop and do nothing but
[Music: Puccini: La Rondine (aria, Doretta's Dream)]
Doretta's Dream from Puccini's La Rondine sung by Mirella Freni. A selection
by President Jimmy Carter, my guest today on Mad About Music. Now Mr.
President, we've been talking about your White House years but how did you
come to classical music in the first place?
We had a very wonderful school superintendent named Miss Julia Coleman and
one of the aspects of life that she wanted to share with her students in the
high school was a love for classical. She had some old scratchy records that
she played but she had very careful selection and she would play these
recordings and make us memorize who was the composer and what was the name
of the recording. She always insisted on classical music. But all the way
from Glenn Miller's Moonlight Serenade to Sibelius' Finlandia and beyond, I
learned those in high school and also learned to appreciate them.
Was there music in your home? Did you play an instrument?
The only instrument I ever played was the ukulele when I was stationed in
Hawaii on a submarine and my wife was the best hula dancer among all the
Navy wives on the entire island. But that's my only experience in playing a
musical instrument. But when I was a child I grew up on a farm in Georgia.
We didn't have electricity, we didn't have running water. But we had a radio
battery, a radio operated by battery, and my father would let us listen to a
few programs every day. Our family usually went to bed as soon as it got
dark, but he gave me special permission to stay up until Glenn Miller would
come on every night at 8 o'clock for 15 minutes. So I would lie in front of
the fireplace and go to sleep sometimes, but wake up at 8:00, turn on the
radio, and listen to 15 minutes of Glenn Miller's music, Moonlight Serenade
and so forth, and then I would go to bed with the rest of the family.
[Music: Miller: Moonlight Serenade]
Moonlight Serenade by the legendary Glenn Miller, one of the earliest
musical memories of my guest today, President Jimmy Carter.
Now, Mr. President, the artist of your next selection was also a legend --
the great Spanish guitarist, Andrés Segovia. At age 85 he performed in that
White House series but you had to miss that concert, didn't you, to go to
the Middle East to press Israel Prime Minister Began and Egypt's President
Sadat to wrap up a peace treaty. But I understand that later Segovia created
a surprise performance for you.
Well, Segovia was always one of my favorite performing artists. And we got
to know him quite well. In 1980 when I went to the Economic Summit
Conference that was in Venice, Italy, on the way back we stopped in Madrid
and went to the Prado to see the paintings and so forth, which I really had
always loved, and then that night we decided to go out to an enormous
nightclub where they did Spanish flamenco dancing and so forth and Segovia
heard that we were there and surprised me and Rosalynn by coming to the
nightclub, surreptitiously brought his guitar, and the whole audience was
agog - not that I was there, but that Segovia was there and so he asked me
what was my favorite guitar composition and I told him Recuerdos de la
Alhambra and the audience in that loud night club was absolutely silent
while he sat on a small stool without amplification and played the
Recuerdos. It was to me a still miraculous performance.
[Music: Tarrega: Recuerdos de la Alhambra]
Recuerdos de la Alhambra by Tarrega played by Andrés Segovia, a selection of
my guest President Jimmy Carter and we're here at The Carter Center in
Atlanta for Mad About Music. Mr. President, you mentioned going to a
nightclub in Madrid. Isn't it unusual for a President of the United States
to dash off to a nightclub?
Well, we wanted to absorb as much as we could of the culture of Spain, but
it was not really unusual for us - we enjoyed going out like that.
You know, as you traveled around the world as the President meeting other
heads of state, also meeting people during very difficult international
circumstances, were there musical interludes you can remember that moved you
in any way or bring back a memory?
Yes, that was always interesting to see how foreigners would play music that
they thought I, as a visiting President, would like. I think one of the most
overwhelming feelings of patriotism that I've had for music was when we
first visited the Communist regime in Poland. We wanted to try to see Poland
escape from Soviet domination. We went into a beautiful opera house for the
evening music and the First Secretary who was a Communist and Atheist was
presiding but they had about a 15-instrument orchestra behind us in a
balcony and they played the Star Spangled Banner in the most beautiful way
that I think I have ever heard and I and Rosalynn both and all of our
entourage had tears running down our cheeks when they got through -- just
absolutely beautiful. Particularly in a Communist country.
Now President Carter, earlier you mentioned that you and your roommate at
Annapolis spent all your money on classical records. What did your fellow
midshipmen think about that nonstop music coming out of your room?
Well, there were times I have to admit when some of our next-door neighbors
would complain about how loud we played the recordings. But there was one
selection that brought a remarkable response from them. We particularly
liked Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and Scott and I would play this music and
particularly as it got toward the Liebestod, we would turn up the volume
even more and it was amazing that quite often when that music reached its
climax, outside our door there would be 15 or 20 midshipmen just gathered
around the door to hear the culmination of this beautiful piece. Later, by
the way, when I was interviewed by Admiral Rickover to get into the atomic
submarine program -- I was in charge of the second atomic submarine that was
built - he asked me if I liked music and I said yes. He said, what do you
like. And I said well, I like classical music, I like popular music. What
classical music do you like? I said, I like a lot of them. Just name one, he
said. I said,
well, I like Wagner's music. Which composition is your favorite? Tristan und
Isolde. What do you like best? And I said, I think Liebestod. He was
surprised that I knew this and he persisted - he was an expert on it - he
said why do you like this music. I said I liked the climax of it where it
just kinds of enthralls the listener. So that was one point of Rickover's
interview that I passed with flying colors. I failed some other parts of his
interview, but I never will forget that moment.
Well, you got the job.
I got the job, yes.
I gather that Tristan made its way into the White House as well because in
the memories of the colonel in charge of the Marine Band, he talks about
coming to visit you at the very beginning when you entered the White House
to see what music would you like to have played and he said he was
absolutely startled when you said Tristan, the Prelude to Act III. But, in
the book Music at the White House, the author makes the point that many
people were surprised at your passion for classical music, thinking that,
well, someone who came from the remote farm community simply couldn't know
much about music. Did that trouble you, that impression?
Well, I think Rosalynn and I wiped that impression out the minds of the
musicians in Washington and also of the audience who heard and watched the
performances that we provided on a worldwide basis. But I think they were
surprised at some of my preferences. Yes, because mostly military music like
the Marine Band ordinarily played was a choice of most presidents. I
particularly wanted them to expand their repertoire a little bit and play
some of the things that I particularly liked.
Well, if you go from the lighthearted Student Prince that we began the show
with to the weighty Tristan, that's a big leap. I mean, do the other Wagner
operas -- the Ring, the Dutchman, Meistersinger -- do those have the same
appeal as Tristan?
Well, they do. I have a fairly good selection of Wagner at home along with
maybe 8 or 10 other composers that I like. But Wagner has a special appeal
to me. I think I like the power of his music, the elaboration of it and the
culmination of some of his pieces are just particularly moving to me. Some
may be a little too long. I've been to a couple of operas -- that's not my
favorite sort of performance when you can't escape and you have to stay for
the entire performance. But usually, I really prefer the instrumental part,
which is kind of a summary of some of those that you mentioned than the
entire opera, but Tristan is one that I like through its entirety.
Well, the theme that seems to be emerging from our show today is the
romantic power of music and so for Tristan, why don't we listen to Isolde's
final solo, the Liebestod, the work which drew all those midshipmen to your
[Music: Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (Liebestod)]
The Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde sung by Helga Dernesch with
the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Herbert von Karajan. This is
Gilbert Kaplan on Mad About Music reminiscing with President Jimmy Carter
about music during his White House years.
Well, some of the performers at the White House recollected again to their
great surprise that you not only came to the performances, but that you
actually sat many times through the entire rehearsals. I mean, how did you
manage that within your schedule?
Well, ordinarily, the Presidents, including me, went to Camp David on Friday
afternoons to get some relaxation and just to get away from the burden of
the office. But when we had one of these performances, instead of going to
Camp David, I stayed at the White House because I particularly enjoyed going
into the East Room where they ordinarily performed and listening to the
rehearsals or watching the rehearsals like when Baryshnikov danced, we were
there all during the afternoon and we were concerned - we thought we might
have to move the stage or raise the chandelier because when he made one of
his fantastic leaps, sometimes his head would come within a few inches of
the bottom of the chandelier. So it was very exciting to me to go to the
rehearsals just to see how they prepared and just listen to some of their
mistakes that they made in their preliminary work. But also to get to know
them a little bit better personally. I remember one time, by the way,
Kostelanetz came and one of the most electrifying performances we've ever
had on the South Lawn was when he played the 1812 Overture and without
Kostelanetz knowing it before the practice, we had cannons arranged around
the periphery of the South Lawn and when the climax of the 1812 Overture
arrived when the cannons boomed forward even Kostelanetz himself was
startled at how loud they were and how overwhelming they were. But we really
liked to stretch the repertoire, as I said, of what was ordinarily performed
at the White House.
President Carter, you had so much opportunity in the White House, it seems,
to have music because it was part of your life there. Now, as you are
running The Carter Center and traveling so much around the world, do you
still have time to listen to music publicly?
Well I do on occasion. We've talked almost exclusively about classical music
so far. But we like country music, we like some of the rock music and so
forth that was popular 25 years ago. Willie Nelson is a special friend. He
would come to the White House, spend a night with me. We would jog maybe 5
or 6 miles early in the morning before I had to go to work and Willie
Nelson's concerts have been a special event for me because that was one of
the few times when I actually got on the stage and performed. Every time
when he would get to end of his concert he would play Amazing Grace and he
always asked me to come up and sing with him. And he soon learned after
about 10 seconds to move the microphone away from my mouth with its
dissonant notes and over closer to him.
Mr. President, Willie Nelson ends his concerts with Amazing Grace and it
prompts me to pose a question to you about endings. It's a question which --
I don't want to put any thoughts in your mind about the future -- but, it's
a question that is sometimes asked of people who love music. If you had to
pick a work, a single work to be played at your funeral, what would that be?
I always said I wanted Leontyne Price to sing, but I've lived longer than I
thought I was going to have. I'm not sure that would be possible. Well, to
be mundane about it, I would probably pick the Navy Hymn. I don't know the
technical name for it. But three years at the Naval Academy, we sang the
Navy Hymn every Sunday morning in chapel and that would probably be, in
fact, I think in the plans for my funeral I specified that as one of the
things to be played. I haven't yet picked out a classical piece to be
Well, President Carter, your record as a President is well known to all of
us but I'm so pleased that our audience could see the musical side of Jimmy
Carter - both your commitment and your passion. Thank you for sharing your
music with us today.
It's been a great experience for me. Thank you very much.
This is Gilbert Kaplan for Mad About Music.
Mad About Music with Gilbert Kaplan, airs at 8pm on the first Saturday of
each month, WNYC AM 820 and WNYC 93.9 FM.
Thanks to President Carter, Gilbert Kaplan and wnyc.org.
Little Jimmy Olsen
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