Ronald Lo Presti: Elegy for a Young American

For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding."
President John F. Kennedy 
In a speech at Rice University

Up until this point, I've not had any difficulty thinking about what to write.  I usually pick a piece, think of a few interesting tidbits that I can recall, look up some more information about it and done.  Off to the races.  This week, however, I've had some difficulty.  The piece is Ronald Lo Presti's (1933-1985) Elegy for a Young American.  It was published in 1964, the year following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

I have not been able to find much in the way of program notes for this work, so I don't have too much to go on beyond personal experience this week.  The piece itself follows a pattern describing the emotions experienced through the grief process.  It begins with a clarinet choir into a quick build-up to a large climax, indicating the moment of disaster.  There is a sense of confusion, hurt, anger in the introduction.  Following the climax, a trombone chorale leads us into a section of mourning and a growing understanding of the events that have unfolded.    

Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson being sworn in onboard Air Force 1.

The mood changes through the middle sections of the piece.  I had been told several times that the piece tries to emulate the five stages of grief and loss, but upon further research I uncovered that the concept of five distinct stages of mourning a loss wasn't published until 1969, five years after the publication of the Lo Presti.  

It was Elsabeth Kübler-Ross who pioneered this concept in her book, On Death and Dying.  The whole idea is that a human when presented with a situation of extreme loss, such as their own death or that of a loved or dear person in their life, will cycle through five distinct emotional states.  The states are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance and they don't necessarily occur in order.  The interesting (and somewhat sad) thing to me is that acceptance is not a guaranteed outcome of the grieving process.  

Sometimes, there is no catharsis.  

Scientifically speaking, her theory has not been substantially supported and at face value it does smell a bit of psuedo-science.  Despite this instability, the persistence of the idea that grief occurs in stages has become fact in the public opinion in the years following.  Looking back now I find it particularly interesting that Lo Presti wrote this piece, without the Kübler-Ross model in mind.  He wrote it as a response to Kennedy's assassination, as a means of coping.  I would argue that for Lo Presti, writing Elegy for a Young American was his own personal realization of the acceptance stage.  

The piece itself saw great popularity after its publication and like many band pieces in the burgeoning years of wind band literature in the mid-20th century, it was played less frequently as newer pieces came out.  I couldn't determine if it was ever out of print (I don't think that it was), but it has been on the Florida Bandmaster's Association Concert Band list for some time which is generally enough to encourage publishers to keep it alive.  

The piece did regain some of its previous purpose following the 2001 World Trade Center attacks.  As a band director, we tend to try and find ways to adapt our concert repertoire to our students' lives.  My own first exposure to this piece was from my high school band director following the the attacks.  Many school bands dusted it off and presented it for performance and still today I can't recall a Music Performance Assessment that doesn't showcase at least one band playing the piece.  

I think it speaks to a very deep, personal area in all of us.  I think it attaches directly to our innate fear and anger about death and pulls it out to display for all to see and examine, laid completely bare.  I think it gives the excitement of looking over the edge and gazing long into the abyss, I think it awakes in all of us the awareness of how frail and finite our lives tragically are.  

I think my difficulties in finding the right words to describe this piece stem from my own challenges in rationalizing loss and grief.  It's hard to put to words what can be so much better expressed through music.  So, I feel as though I must apologize.  LF is meant to be funny, to entertain as a means to encourage the readership to want to experience a new type of music, one that they may not be familiar with.  My goal has always been to share the beautiful music others have shared with me with people who may not have the benefit of an extensive musical background.  The theme is accessibility and humor is generally a good vehicle to that end.  

In this case, I'm just sorry.  

There is nothing funny to say today.  

Homework: Don't write.  Just sit.  Listen.  Think about something you've lost.  Put it in the center of your mind.  Press play.

See you next Friday.