Drawing from American musical sources and texts, Michael Dougherty’s composition for chorus and orchestra echoes the resonance and dissonance of Mount Rushmore as a complex icon of American history. Like Mount Rushmore, the libretto is carved out of the words of each President.

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). Created during the Great Depression against seemingly impossible odds, the American sculptor Gutzon Borglum supervised a small crew of men in the carving of these figureheads into the granite mountainside of Mount Rushmore from 1927 until his death in 1941. 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 divided the choir into two sections to reflect two phases in the life of George Washington, first as commander-in-chief during the Revolutionary War and later as the first President of the United States. Choir I performs fragments of Chester, the popular Revolutionary War anthem by William Billings, in the bright straight tones of shape-note singing common to the period. Following orchestral echoes of Yankee Doodle, Choir II sings a fragment from Washington’s letter, written upon retirement from public life: “I will move gently down the stream of life, until I sleep with my Fathers.”

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. While President, Roosevelt created the National Park Service and successfully protected, against great opposition from commercial developers, over 234 million acres of natural 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 reconciled a divided United States 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. —Michael Daugherty, from the Naxos website

The text of the cantata may be found here at the Naxos website. YouTube and Spotify links are below.

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