Music and the American Presidency: A Virtual Fireside Chat with U.S. Presidents

CALVIN COOLIDGE: It is as one of those who are moved by music, rather than one learned in its scholarship or profession, that I speak.(1)

HARRY S TRUMAN: I’ve heard the Enesco Rhapsody over the radio a couple of times. He’s not a noise composer-thank goodness.(2)

JOHN ADAMS: There was too much sound for me.(3)

CHESTER A. ARTHUR: I have heard nothing.(4)

JOHN TYLER: I am but a poor judge of music.(5)

CALVIN COOLIDGE: If music is a matter of mathematics or figures and letters and symbols, then it is a dead and worthless art and not the vital factor in existence that we all believe.(6)

HARRY S TRUMAN: Margie held a concert here in D.C. on Dec. 5th. It was a good one. She was well accompanied by a young pianist name of Allison, whose father is a Baptist preacher in Augusta, Georgia. Young Allison played two pieces after the intermission, one of which was the great A flat Chopin Waltz Opus 42. He did it as well as it could be done and I’ve heard Paderewski, Moritz Rosenthal and Joseph Lhevinne play it. A frustrated critic on the Washington Post wrote a lousy review. The only thing, General Marshall said, he didn’t criticize was the varnish on the piano. He put my “baby” as low as he could and he made the young accompanist look like a dub. It upset me, and I wrote him what I thought of him. I told him he is lower than Pegler and that was intended to be an insult worse than a reflection on his ancestry…(7)

CALVIN COOLIDGE: It may be that critics and scholars, with the best intentions in the world, have placed music upon so high a pedestal that the man in the street could not really reach it. They have persisted in representing good music as something far above our heads, something obtainable only by the most laborious study and painstaking effort. They have pictured music as something abstruse; something utterly exclusive; something only for the elect, reserved for aristocracy. Yet we find that when music of any kind is given a fair hearing, it produces its effect immediately and directly without any conscious effort on the part of the recipient.(8)

GEORGE BUSH:Me and Crippled Soldiers” said a lot.(9)

HARRY S TRUMAN: [Frederick Jagel] is a little man with a lovely voice but he makes terrible faces when he sings. Also he was scared. They all seem to get a fit of nerves when they sing in the East Room. I don’t know why. I’m not such a terrible person.(10)

CALVIN COOLIDGE: It may be as the political nobility in days gone by prevented the political development of the people, so a musical nobility in these days is preventing the musical development of the people.(11)



(1) From “Bring the Best Music to the People, Urges President Coolidge,” The Musician, September 1923, p. 8.

(2) From Harry S Truman’s February 14, 1948 Letter to Margaret Truman collected in the Truman Papers and published in Harry Truman: The Man and His Music by Brian Lingham (Kansas City: Lowell, 1985); reprinted in Music at the White House: A History of the American Spirit by Elise K. Kirk (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986), p. 254.

(3) From the Diary and Autobiography of John Adams edited by L.H. Butterfield (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1961) 4:66; reprinted in Music at the White House: A History of the American Spirit by Elise K. Kirk (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986), p. 22.

(4) From a Chester A. Arthur quote cited in Chester A. Arthur: A Quarter-Century of Machine Politics by George Frederick Howe (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1935, reprinted by Ungar 1957, 1966), p. 1.

(5) From John Tyler’s response to a White House performance by the Bohemian-American composer Anthony Philip Heinrich recounted in Pleasures of Music: A Reader’s Choice of Great Writing about Music and Musicians from Cellini to Bernard Shaw by Jacques Barzun (New York: Viking Press), p. 329.

(6) From “Bring the Best Music to the People, Urges President Coolidge,” The Musician, September 1923, p. 24.

(7) From Harry S Truman’s December 9, 1950 Diary entry; reprinted in Off The Record: The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman (New York: Harper and Row, 1980), p. 204]

(8) From “Bring the Best Music to the People, Urges President Coolidge,” The Musician, September 1923, p. 8.

(9) From George Bush’s August 1, 1989 Letter to Merle Haggard; reprinted in All The Best, George Bush: My Life in Letters and Other Writings (New York: Scribner’s, 1999), p. 438.

(10) From Harry S Truman’s January 30, 1947 Letter to Bessie Truman; reprinted in Music at the White House: A History of the American Spirit by Elise K. Kirk (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986), p. 259.

(11) From “Bring the Best Music to the People, Urges President Coolidge,” The Musician, September 1923, p. 8.