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Classical 101

Kennedy's Musical Life

Return to Camelot Music of the Kennedy White House
WOSU Public Media

In large measure, the musical reputation the Kennedy White House enjoyed was due primarily to Jackie Kennedy. In spite of his contributions towards musical appreciation, the President himself was less than a music enthusiast.

While he took piano lessons as a child, “Anybody studying this boy’s character when he was practicing scales would have said he’d never grow up to become President of the United States.”

Pop Music and the Twist

Later in life, Kennedy’s musical tastes ranged “from middlebrow to noncommittal.” His musical repertoire included “Mack the Knife” from The Threepenny Opera, Chubby Checker’s “The Twist,”and “September Song” from Knickerbocker Holiday. While some thought it scandalous when there was “twisting in the historic East Room,” the President himself did not dance--he merely watched the twisters at work. 

 August Heckscher, the White House Cultural Coordinator, thought John F. Kennedy found music painful in general. Due to his chronic back pain, he probably found it difficult to sit for any length of time, but, says Heckscher, “it hurt his ears [as well]. I really don’t think he liked music at all except a few things that he knew.”

Indeed, Kennedy had a few favorites. Paul Hume of the Washington Post learned that Jack and Jackie both enjoyed “symphonic music with extra musical associations, such as Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet Overture” and Debussy’s “Prelude to Afternoon of a Faun.” A lover of jazz, Kennedy brought the first jazz ensemble to play in the White House on November 19, 1962--the Paul Winter Sextet.

"Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths and encourage the arts and commerce." --John F. Kennedy, January 20, 1961, Washington DC, Inaugural Address

Conforming to Classical

John F. Kennedy hosted many classical concerts at the White House, but when it came to classical music, however, he was undereducated. Kennedy was often unclear about the cessation of different movements within any one composition, and he worked out a system with his social secretary, Letitia Baldridge, to alert him to the completion of a piece.

“As the last piece was almost finished, I was to open the central door of the East Room from the outside about two inches....When the President noticed the door slightly ajar, that meant the last piece was in progress. He would await the applause; then, clapping heartily, he would take Mrs. Kennedy by the arm, and escort the honored guests to the stage, to congratulate the musicians.”

Military Music Memories

When Thomas Jefferson became President, he named the Marine Band “The President’s Own,” signifying that the orchestra would function as the President’s private band and be on call for White House performances. The Marine Band performs at functions ranging from teas to state dinners and introduces the President and his wife with four ruffles and flourishes, followed by “Hail to the Chief.” Kennedy once joked that "I think 'Hail to the Chief' has a nice ring to it"!

The Kennedys expanded the traditions of military music as well as that of classical music. At state dinners, Mrs. Kennedy wanted “constant music--no dull moments.” Although past guests had entered the East Room in silence, they now entered with “happy, peppy music by the Marine Band....Everyone walked with a spring in his step, from footmen to dowagers.”

Kennedy and Bagpipes

Kennedy may have had a special affinity for Irish music and the bagpipes, “the noble, haunting instruments that especially appealed to the President’s Irish heritage.”1 The Air Force Pipers and the Drum and Bugle Corps performed on the South Lawn after the first state dinner of the Kennedy administration on May 3, 1961, for President Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia.

Just as they had at the first Kennedy state dinner, the bagpipes graced the last one: on November 13, 1963, the famous Royal Highland Regiment, The Black Watch, presented a special program of piping, marching, and spirited dancing on the South Lawn.

Guests for the afternoon were 1,700 children from child-care agencies served by the United Givers Fund, and they managed to devour over 10,000 cookies. “I don’t know when I have seen the President enjoy himself more," wrote Jackie Kennedy to Major W. M. Wingate-Gray. “The ceremony was one of the most stirring we have ever had at the White House.”2

Eleven days later, nine pipers played at the White House once again, only this time, they played “The Barren Rocks of Ade,” the “hauntingly poignant march” accompanying the funeral cortege, and the world mourned the death of John F. Kennedy.