Grand piano presented to the White House in 1903. Smithsonian Institution
During the terms of Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909), White House musical events became a major, regularly scheduled feature of the mansion’s social life. Many innovations took place: the first program by a famous concert pianist; the first musicale devoted to a single opera; the first performance on a clavichord; and the first East Room piano–a fine concert grand from Steinway & Sons presented to the White House in 1903 [see more below]. The world’s greatest pianists from Josef Hofmann to the legendary Ignacy Paderewski were invited to perform for the Roosevelts, and instrumental music reached further heights with the Kneisel Quartet, the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, and the new Washington Symphony Orchestra. One of the most distinctive programs of the era, however, was that of the twenty-eight-year-old Spanish cellist, Pablo Casals, who played on January 15, 1904. More than a half century later, Casals would perform again in the White House for President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy.
Elise Kirk, Musical Highlights from the White House, 88-93.
Landmark Era Performances ›
1903: The famous "Gold Steinway" was presented to the White House in January on the occasion of Steinway’s 50th anniversary establishing the East Room as a focal point for the performing arts. For the next several decades, Steinway arranged appearances by the great pianists of the day---Busoni, Hofmann, Samaroff, and the legendary Ignacy Jan Paderewski.
1905: Scott Joplin's celebrated 1899 Maple Leaf Rag was first played at the White House in 1905 at a diplomatic reception at the request of Theodore Roosevelt's daughter, Alice, who wanted to hear "that new jazz."
The celebrated Australian pianist and composer Percy Grainger played for the Wilsons in 1916. Music Division, New York Public Library at the Lincoln Center
The abundance of fine artists, who performed during the Theodore Roosevelt era, continued to appear during succeeding administrations, and President and Mrs. William Howard Taft and the Woodrow Wilsons molded the popular White House musicale into a well-established tradition. Beginning with the Roosevelts and continuing through the Eisenhowers, Steinway & Sons assisted the First Lady with the selection of the artists and helped with their travel and hotel arrangements. Helen Taft was a fine amateur pianist, who practiced almost every day on her Baldwin piano, which was trimmed in gold to match motifs in the Blue Room (called "Mrs. Taft’s Music Room"), where it stood. While Mrs. Taft preferred concert pianists, President Taft’s tastes in music are illustrated in the Tin Pan Alley songs and arias from Puccini’s La Boheme coming from his graphanola at this time. President Wilson, too, enjoyed a novel "performer" in the White House–his Victrola, a new American "voice" that entertained him in the evenings as he and Edith Wilson relaxed by the fire.
Elise Kirk, Musical Highlights from the White House, 95-99.
Landmark Era Performance › 1916: The celebrated Australian pianist and composer Percy Grainger played several of his compositions for Woodrow Wilson and his family on March 28.
Grace and Calvin Coolidge greet Hollywood stars at the White House in 1924. Library of Congress
Tin Pan Alley and the American musical theater were in a great state of verve and vitality in the period between the two world wars, and White House guests lists of the time reflected this. In 1924 President Coolidge invited legendary showman, Al Jolson to help him launch an election campaign at a White House pancake breakfast. After the breakfast, forty stars from stage and screen, including John Drew, the Dolly Sisters, Charlotte Greenwood and Ray Miller’s Jazz Band, staged impromptu entertainment on the White House lawns. Both first ladies, Florence Harding and Grace Coolidge, were especially interested in classical music. Mrs. Harding showed her encouragement of music in young people by inviting eleven-year-old concert pianist, Shura Cherkassy, to present a recital, and through the invitation of Grace Coolidge, Sergei Rachmaninoff played in the White House on three separate occasions.
Elise Kirk, Musical Highlights from the White House, 100-108.
The East Room’s mahogany concert grand piano, with supporting eagles of gold leaf, was presented to the White House in 1938. White House
The roster of prominent artists who performed for President Herbert Hoover at the end of the 1920s and into the early 1930s includes Grace Moore, Rosa Ponselle, Jascha Heifetz, Vladimir Horowitz, and many others. In 1931, President and Mrs. Hoover were the first to invite an artist to play for a head of state [see more below]. With the performance of the Hampton and Tuskegee choirs, the Hoovers also became the first to bring black choirs to the White House since the Fisk Jubilee Singers sang for President Arthur. During the long administration of Franklin Roosevelt, from March 4, 1933 to April 13, 1945, more than 300 concerts in the White House reached out to every corner of America. They included women’s musical organizations, black performers (notably Todd Duncan and Marian Anderson), ballet and modern dance (Martha Graham), and children’s opera (Hansel and Gretel). In 1938 Steinway & Sons replaced the 1903 concert grand with a new 9’7" instrument, which is used often in the White House today.
Elise Kirk, Musical Highlights from the White House, 112-118.
Landmark Era Performances ›
1931: President and Mrs. Hoover were the first to invite an artist to play for a head of state (a tradition that continues today) when on April 29, 1931, harpist Mildred Dilling played for King Phra Pok Klao Prajadhipok of Siam.
An election year cartoon depicts the beleagured Truman, score in hand, abandoning the piano. Harry S. Truman Presidential Library
As the war in Europe cast its shadow over the capital’s social life, White House entertaining diminished. But one event in particular stands out: "A Program of American Songs for American Soldiers," presented by Burl Ives, Wade Mainer and other folk, spiritual and ballad singers in 1941. It was a new concept, a conscientious effort to relate American traditional music to the armed services at a critical period in the nation’s history. After President Roosevelt’s death in 1945, his vice president, Harry S. Truman, succeeded him. A passionate music lover, who played Chopin, Mozart, and Bach with modest proficiency, Truman had studied piano from age eight to sixteen, and the love of music remained with him all his life.
Elise Kirk, Musical Highlights from the White House, 119-127.
Landmark Era Performances › 1946-1947: Because of extensive White House renovations (1948-1952), the Trumans held only one season of concerts in the mansion, from November 1946 to February 1947. These programs, however, included several prominent artists, such as Lawrence Tibbett, Oscar Levant, Carroll Glenn, Eugene List, and Helen Traubel, the esteemed vocal teacher of Truman’s musical daughter, Margaret.
Sources: Elise K. Kirk, Music at the White House: A History of the American Spirit. University of Illinois, 1986 and Musical Highlights from the White House. Florida: Krieger Publishing Company, 1992.
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