Mount Rushmore (2010) for chorus and orchestra is inspired by the monumental sculpture, located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, of four American presidents: George Washington (1732–1799), Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) and Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865). The American sculptor Gutzon Borglum supervised the carving of these figureheads into the granite mountainside of Mount Rushmore, from 1927 until his death in 1941. Created during the Great Depression (1927-1941) against seemingly impossible odds with a small crew of men, Mount Rushmore came to symbolize an attitude of hope against adversity. Borglum described the monument as “American, drawn from American sources, memorializing American achievement.” Drawing from American musical sources and texts, my composition echoes the resonance and dissonance of Mount Rushmore as a complex icon of American history. Like Mount Rushmore, my libretto is carved out of the words of each President.
For the first movement, I have selected a fragment of George Washington’s final letter, upon his retirement from military and public life to Mount Vernon, to the French General Marquis de Lafayette, his Revolutionary War comrade in arms: “I will move gently down the stream of life, until I sleep with my Fathers.” Perhaps Washington predicted his future place at Mount Rushmore where, as America’s first President, he “sleeps” with other important “fathers” of American history. Musical echoes of popular Revolutionary War anthems (Chester by William Billings, and Yankee Doodle) are a reminder of Washington’s role as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War.
Thomas Jefferson, the third President of America, was a brilliant political writer and also an accomplished violinist, who wrote that “Music is the passion of my soul.” As the American Minister to France (1785-89), the recently widowed Jefferson met Maria Cosway in Paris, and fell in love with this young, charismatic, Anglo-Italian society hostess, musician, and composer of salon music. The second movement of my composition intertwines a love song composed by Cosway for Jefferson (Ogni Dolce Aura) together with a love letter composed by Jefferson for Cosway (“Dialogue of the Head vs. the Heart”) and key fragments from Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.
The third movement is based on the words of America’s 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt, who was a great explorer of the uncharted wilderness. As President, Roosevelt created the National Park Service and successfully saved, against great opposition from commercial developers, over 234 million acres of plains, forests, rivers and mountain ranges of the American West. It was during his retreats into the barren Badlands of North Dakota (not far from Mount Rushmore) that Roosevelt, as a young man, realized that the “majestic beauty” of the American wilderness needed to be left “as it is” for future generations. I have composed music to suggest the robust and mystical sense of Roosevelt’s “delight in the hardy life of the open” and “the hidden spirit of the wilderness.”
The fourth and final movement of Mount Rushmore is dedicated to Abraham Lincoln, who successfully led the United States through the Civil War and initiated the end of slavery. I have set the rhythmic cadences and powerful words of his Gettysburg Address (1863) to music that resonates with echoes of period music from the Civil War. I create a musical portrait of the 16th President of the United States, who expressed his vision with eloquence, and with hope that the human spirit could overcome prejudice and differences of opinion in order to create a better world.