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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

Music and Musical Performances in the White House Timeline


Before the White House was completed in 1800, President George Washington and his wife Martha lived first in New York City, then Philadelphia. Washington enjoyed the theater and liked to dance, especially the minuet, which he danced with great pleasure at his inaugural ball. Read More


President and Mrs. John Adams were the first occupants of the White House in the nation’s new capital, the City of Washington. Shortly after moving into the mansion in November 1800, the Adams’s invited the young United States Marine Band, consisting of only eight or ten musicians, to play at their first reception on New Years Day, 1801. Read More


Dolley Madison, wife of James Madison, was one of early America’s most gracious hostesses. Through Benjamin Latrobe, she purchased a piano for the White House for $450 that was of "superior tone in strength and sweetness." Read More


Both John Quincy Adams and his wife, Louisa Catherine, were great devotees of music, and often sang ballads and arias together, while Louisa played the White House American-made Babcock piano, now housed in the Smithsonian Institution. Read More


The White House under Andrew Jackson was simpler in its customs, ambience, and attitudes than it had been under Adams or Monroe. It was the people’s house with public receptions that opened its doors to one and all. At one of President Jackson’s receptions, the Marine Band played one of the president’s favorite tunes, "Auld Lang Syne," as his hungry guests devoured a 1,400 pound "Mammoth Cheese." Read More


During the administrations of John Tyler, James Knox Polk, and Zachary Taylor, guest performers entertained at the White House with increasing frequency. Read More


President Millard Fillmore and his family were particularly musical. Mrs. Fillmore, the former Abigail Powers, made certain the White House had not only a music room, but also three pianos. Read More


Abraham Lincoln could neither sing nor read music, but he loved music with a passion. He attended the opera at least thirty times while he was president, and when once criticized for these diversions during the turbulent Civil War years, he said frankly, "I must have a change or I will die." Read More


President Ulysses S. Grant was once said to have known "only two tunes. One is ‘Yankee Doodle,’ and the other isn’t." But the great military hero of the Civil War, General Grant did, in fact, enjoy the music of the Marine Band, which gave concerts regularly on the White House grounds every Saturday during summer and early fall. Read More


During the administration of President Chester Arthur, the first East Room concert for specially invited guests took place, when the famous Canadian soprano, Emma Albani, sang in 1883. Read More


Social dancing was especially enjoyed during the terms of Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley and its popularity within the White House reflected the changing times. Read More


During the terms of Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909), White House musical events became a major, regularly scheduled feature of the mansion’s social life. Read More


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. Read More


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. Read More


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. Read More


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. Read More


While neither President nor Mrs. Eisenhower was especially knowledgeable in European classical music, they recognized the value of the music of their own nation and placed more emphasis than any of their predecessors on White House programs that reflected its colorful variety. Read More


Although guest artists had been entertaining at the White House for more than a century, President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy made the White House a true showcase for the performing arts and their creativity and dedication provided a model for succeeding administrations to the present day. Read More


Music in the White House during the administrations of Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter reflected a wider segment of American culture than ever before, with the appearance of jazz, gospel, ragtime, and popular song, as well as classical concert and vocal forms. Read More


Called "In Performance from the White House," the PBS programs from the White House during the two administrations of Ronald Reagan broadened to include not only classical styles as seen under the Carters, but Broadway, country, jazz and gospel, always with creative theatrical flair. Read More


President and Mrs. George Bush recognized music as a supreme American gesture, a vital symbol of American life as it underscored every important national event, social cause and ceremonial mood in the White House. Read More


In June 2001, President Bush proclaimed the month of June, “Black Music Month,” encouraging “all Americans to learn more about the contributions of black artists to America's musical heritage and to celebrate their remarkable role in shaping our history and culture.” Read More