We think of the White House as a center of politics, of history, even of scandal, but it also has a legacy as a cultural center. "The White House: In Tune With History" (tonight at 10 on KCET and KVCR), produced by "Live From Lincoln Center" creator John Goberman, traces the lively history of musical performance at the White House.
Music has played many roles at the White House. It has served to relay political messages, as when Abraham Lincoln had the Marine Band play "Dixie" as a note of respect to the defeated South at the end of the Civil War. It has advanced political agendas, as when Eleanor Roosevelt invited black opera singer Marian Anderson to perform as a way of speaking out against segregation.
Musical performance has been used to assure visiting dignitaries that Americans are not complete cultural dunces and to reach across language barriers to find common ground. Finally, music is played at the White House for the sheer enjoyment it brings.
"In Tune With History" manages to explore all of these themes using interesting historical tidbits (who knew Truman was such an accomplished pianist?), rarely seen film footage of famous performances (such as a 1969 party for Duke Ellington that, one guest recalls, "rocked the White House"), historic photos (such as of cellist Pablo Casals' momentous performance for the Kennedys) and interviews with scholars, musicians and former first ladies.
But it is the music -- from the folk tunes enjoyed by Lincoln to John Philip Sousa's marches to Anderson's "Ave Maria" to Pearl Bailey's "Hello, Dolly!" -- that makes the film, like the White House, come to life.
"The weight of the country is on the White House," says commentator Geoffrey Holden. "Music makes it breathe, makes it alive." And it clearly has the power to soothe -- and humanize -- the savage beasts we otherwise know as politicians.