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Obama’s Amazing Grace shows how music can lift oratory high

When the President of the United States burst into song on the weekend, music amplified the emotional force of his words. EPA/Richard Ellis

Obama’s Amazing Grace shows how music can lift oratory high

Where words leave off, so music begins – Heinrich Heine (1797-1856)

Amazing grace, amazing grace … (trailing off). Amazing grace, how sweet the sound (now singing) – Barack Obama, 2015.

Barely a week after Donald Trump’s presidential campaign launch provided a problematic example of music in the political sphere, Barack Obama’s eulogy at the Reverend Clementa Pinckney’s funeral in Charleston, South Carolina provided the polar opposite; an example of how music can propel oratory into regions of meaning and impact that most politicians can only dream of.

To be sure, the two events are categorically distinct on many levels; Trump’s campaign launch (likely attended by paid actors) sits firmly in the political sphere (or the commedia dell’arte sphere, depending on your viewpoint), whereas a funeral, even one freighted with political issues, connects with music more readily through the raw and exposed emotional nerve endings of the people in attendance.

Yet music played a fascinating role at both events, and in each case, context was everything. Unlike the Trump campaign launch, however, Obama’s most recent public musical moment (there have been others) has reverberated positively around the world.

Only a hard heart could fail to respond on some emotional level when the President of the United States of America, eulogising at one of the most emotionally and racially charged funerals in US history, started singing Amazing Grace.

Only blindness could deny the power of witnessing the US’s first president of colour break into song, powerfully illustrating his connection to one of the most musically rich religious communities on Earth (the African American Church generally), galvanising an entire nation into finding strength in a time of great need.

Obama’s words alone that day would have been enough to inspire awe. His performance approached the emotional intensity of a sermon, and subsequent speakers were compelled to anoint him “Reverend President”.

Compared to the anodyne and anaemic cultural engagement leaders of most Western neo-liberal democracies exhibit, it was hard not to be transported back to the heady days of Obama’s election win in 2008 by the centred charisma he showed onstage.

The power of the moment

Near the end of an almost 40-minute eulogy, after a perfectly-judged rhetorical crescendo, Obama paused, bowed his head, and gently launched into a rendition of the first verse of Amazing Grace:

Obama sings Amazing Grace.

A re-reading of the names of the shooting victims follows, and the climax of the eulogy is reached. Many news stories that feature video of the event cut into the moment a split-second before Obama sings, and only some include the subsequent reading of names.

But to fully understand the power of the moment, it’s worth going further back into the text of the eulogy.

The theme of grace, God’s grace here, was threaded throughout. And like a great symphonist embarking on a lengthy musical journey, Obama drops his theme right at the beginning: the first thing he’d noticed upon meeting Rev. Pinckney had been his “graciousness”.

Obama builds his theme

After beautifully describing the Reverend’s biographical embodiment of graciousness, Obama pivots from the personal to the general.

As Pastor at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Pinckney was profoundly connected to the history of African American religious culture. The references to history open the door to a political dimension, which comes a bit later.

He then twice describes the alleged killer as “blinded” by hatred, saying “he would not see the grace” of the people he would soon murder. Obama was clearly building his rhetoric around the last line of the first verse of Amazing Grace:

was blind, but now I see.

Obama then explicitly refers to grace as the central theme of the eulogy:

This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace.

He quotes lines from Amazing Grace, described the local community’s reaction as graceful, and referred to the grace shown by the victims’ relatives upon facing the alleged killer.

Pondering the opportunity grace provides further, Obama again uses blindness to bring up a list of acutely painful issues for American society: blindness to the pain cause by the Confederate flag, to the role of past injustice in present-day problems, to poverty, to endemic problems in education and employment, to the criminal justice system, to recent problems with law enforcement, and to voting issues.

Ultimately though, it is gun violence that Obama settles on. He implores Americans to approach the issue with open hearts, to find “reservoirs of goodness” that will allow grace to emerge.

He then says:

If we can tap that grace, everything can change. Amazing grace, amazing grace.

He trails off. Then he pauses.

The pause generates electricity, it suggests something is about to happen, and it makes people listen. Like musicians who don’t begin a performance until an audience has fully settled, Obama wants silence in the space before music.

In lesser hands, this moment could have been a corny disaster, and as an artistic moment, people are free to find it such. Critical discussion in most of the press, however, seems to have judged it a success – testament to Obama’s consummate skill as a political performer.

Don’t forget, Obama had just spoken the words “amazing grace” twice, and trailed off. When he then started singing Amazing Grace, he was literally re-creating Heine’s philosophical perspective on music’s post-linguistic status. Adding melody on the third repetition was not only a great segue, but at a fundamental dramatic, theatrical, and philosophical level, pretty clever.

Many things then happen in quick succession. The church leaders behind him spontaneously beam, voice their pleasure at what is happening, and stand to join in. The congregation, surprised to find itself feeling so good about what is happening (it is a funeral after all) doesn’t cheer so much as collectively smile audibly, then sings too. The musicians figure out what key he is in and improvise an accompaniment (almost certainly unscripted).

Of course there are some who may have reacted negatively.

Amazing Grace is so ubiquitous as to almost warrant cliché status. The 18th-century English slave-owner turned abolitionist John Newton penned the words, and the melody we know today has been associated with those words since the 1830s and the Second Great Awakening. Used ever since in countless different contexts, especially since the 1950s, Amazing Grace is in danger of losing its power thanks to over-familiarity.

For the purposes of this eulogy, however, the singing of Amazing Grace was a perfect tool to take the political message into stratospheric emotional territory.

Three classic notes

The opening three notes outline the most ubiquitous structure in post-1600 Western music – the major triad. But they are arranged in a particular way: the first note, sung to “ah-”, is not the strongest of the three notes, but it leads into the most structurally stable, sung to “-maz-”.

The rhythmically longer “-maaaaz-” mirrors the way we speak the word when we want to emphasise it – as in, “wasn’t that speech amaaazing”.

By the third note on “zing”, we certainly know which song we’re hearing. These three notes resonate on deeper levels for anyone familiar with American music of the past. Just one example: Aaron Copland’s seminal Appalachian Spring (1944) is built on the same material, derived in turn from the opening figure to the traditional Shaker song Simple Gifts.

These three notes, outlining what’s called a second-inversion triad, create a beautiful, open sound. It’s this open sound that Copland uses throughout Appalachian Spring to depict the vast openness of possibility represented by the story of young pioneer love in the original ballet, and it’s the same open sound that gives Amazing Grace the open heartedness that Obama was campaigning for in his words about gun violence.

Back to Obama’s singing: another thing happens on “zing” – Obama sings a bit flat. Naturally, as a singer without formal training, who has had certain other things to attend to recent years, he may have just not have the best singing technique. Intonation insecurity and dubiously executed melismata were balanced by an undeniable connection to African American musical culture. That flatness was very likely Obama channelling the blues.

These observations pale in comparison to the overall impact this part of the eulogy delivers. It is thanks to the way music lifts the words about grace out of the quotidian, that Obama can then ride a wave of emotion to the end of the eulogy.

He goes through the names of the dead again, appending “found that grace” to each name, in a full and passionate voice. The soaring effect he creates builds on the music we just heard. “That grace” is a grace that’s had new and deeper meaning conferred upon it by the song.

His reading of each name is a righteous call, in full sermon mode, and the audience responds each time in a cathartic final acknowledgement of the victims. The musicians continue to riff, accompanying the whole antiphonal interaction, commenting on Obama’s words right to the end.

This subtle musical background ensures the emotional vibration continues and elevates the final moments of the eulogy.

By this stage Obama has carried the congregation into the realm of truly powerful communication, underpinned by a musically-accessed emotional state.

The way in which the Obama let music take over where “words left off” demonstrates music’s capacity for consolation in a profoundly important way. And it is salutary to consider that only a culture that understands music, that knows music, that values music, and that realises it needs music, will be able to benefit from it in this way.

If people were moved by Barack Obama’s eulogy, it was ultimately music, as much as God’s grace, that made them see.