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Let the Word Go Forth

Let the Word Go Forth

Turning the words of JFK into song

The assignment for Ethan Wickman, then 37, was rather daunting.

Compose a musical tribute to honor the spirit and legacy of a president who was slain 10 years before Wickman was born. Arrange the score for an orchestra and 330-member choir to perform at the National Presidents Day Choral Festival at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

Make it strong.

Wickman, assistant professor of music composition and theory at UTSA, received the commission in May 2011.

He completed the project in less than two years. On Feb. 3, 2013, during the debut performance, the Kennedy Center audience erupted in applause after the first of five movements.

“It was an electric experience,” Wickman said.

It was a humbling and gratifying experience, as well. Two celebrated composers had been offered the project before Wickman. One declined. The second backed out after a creative disagreement. The commission came to Wickman when he was teaching at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire.

And this spring, a little more than a year after its rousing reception at the Kennedy Center, “Let The Word Go Forth” was performed at the UTSA Recital Hall.

“I’m excited that I get to bring it back here,” Wickman said.

It took Wickman about a year to compose the five movements of “Let The Word Go Forth.” The entire process took longer, however, and enlightened him in ways he had not expected.

Ethan Wickman

Ethan Wickman's composition is performed at the National Presidents Day Choral Festival at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

The research, the composing, the revising and arranging, all of it brought him close to a president he knew only from books and photographs.

Before he put down the first note, Wickman spent months poring over Kennedy’s speeches. He studied his inaugural address. He discovered oratorical gems on civil rights and space travel. He read the historic “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, an address to Congress, an inspirational message on peace. Wickman dug even deeper, studying the works that had influenced JFK–from the Bible to Shakespeare.

As Kennedy’s speeches came to life, Wickman tried to imagine the spirit in which they were delivered. He isolated oratorical flourishes. He studied rhythm and cadence. As he did so, melodies formed in his head. He set one line–We observe today a celebration of freedom–against chords. Then he did the same with another line.

“You think, ‘I know where this is going melodically and harmonically,’” he said. “And it tells you kind of how the melody needs to bend around the next few sentences.”

Wickman did not simply set lines to music. He wrapped music around entire paragraphs, notes rising and falling, bending and twisting through words that resonate in history: Ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.

He composed the second movement first, selecting passages from speeches on space exploration–We choose to go to the moon in this decade for knowledge and peace. On this adventure we embark–and setting them to music.

Wickman followed the second movement with the first. He proceeded to the third and composed the final two in order. The music, from opening note to double bar, covers 23 minutes. The words span three years of a truncated presidency.

The piece soars and dips through touchstones of history: the call to abolish poverty, the challenge to advance civil rights. Haunting notes lurk in the background, foreshadowing the Soviet threat and nuclear war.

“Let The Word Go Forth” covers the assassination delicately. Wickman composed an elegy as a prelude to the fifth movement. No words, only music.

The longer he spent on the project, the closer he drew to President Kennedy. Wickman felt his vision, touched his dreams. He came to know the remarkable gifts and profound weaknesses of a unique world leader.

“He was a very conflicted man,” Wickman said.

Composing each movement carried him deep into history.

“It didn’t feel like a documentary,” he said. “It felt like flesh and blood. I understood what it felt like to be alive in that moment. It was very emotional.”

When unveiled at the Kennedy Center, the piece played to a full house. From his box seat Wickman watched the unfolding of a spectacular performance.

Video of JFK appeared on an overhead screen. Audio of the president’s voice accented the production. The orchestra lifted Wickman’s spirit. The choir carried him away. As the sound of music and applause swept over him, the composer became one with the audience, fully engaged.

“It was powerful,” he said.

–K.L. Rodriguez


Web Extra: To view a presentation of “Let the Word Go Forth,”
An excerpt from "Eulogy, the fifth and final movement of "Let The Word Go Forth," a work for chorus and orchestra commissioned by Music Celebrations International, commemorating the life of President John F. Kennedy. Premiered at the Kennedy Center on February 3, 2013 as part of the National Presidents' Day Choral Festival. Dr. Gary Schwartzhoff, conductor.

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