The musicians of “The President’s Own” have provided the music for many historic events at the White House, dating back to John Adams’ first New Year’s Day reception in 1801 in the not-quite-finished “President’s Palace,” as it was then known. The crown jewel of White House events, however, is the venerable State Dinner. “There have been countless occasions during the Marine Band’s long history performing in the White House when the music we play has provided a unique form of diplomacy, forming a bridge between sometimes disparate cultures through the arts,” Marine Band Director Lt. Col. Jason K. Fettig said. “Nowhere is this more important than during a State Dinner, and we consider it to be among our most important responsibilities in fulfilling our musical mission for the President.”
With the State Dinner for Chinese President Xi Jinping scheduled for Sept. 25, Fettig said much care goes into the planning and execution of every detail of the evening. “For the Marine Band, the music is no exception, and we always endeavor to use the music we play to highlight the fact that these events represent a long and important history of bringing people and nations together. When the Marine Chamber Orchestra performs at the White House for any type of event, we regularly showcase the diverse music of our country, but for a State Dinner it is equally important for us to pay homage to the music and cultural traditions of the President’s guests of honor. For each dinner, we carefully research the musical traditions and styles of the visiting nation and try to include music that will be familiar and welcoming to the guests. Often these special pieces are arranged on command specifically for each dinner by our exceptional production staff.”
Although Presidents entertained foreign dignitaries throughout the 1800s, traveling to the United States was too difficult for official visits from heads of state. King David Kalakaua of Hawaii prevailed, however, and the first State Dinner took place on Dec. 12, 1874, in his honor. The Marine Band performed “Hail to the Chief” at this event, but not as Presidential Honors for President Ulysses Grant. “Hail to the Chief,” at that time, was simply a popular air performed as special guests arrived at the White House.
According to Elise Kirk’s book “Music at the White House,” “With the increase in both the frequency and importance of White House social events [in the late 1800s], the Marine Band’s reputation as ‘The President’s Own’ became more visible than ever before. It played for all of the galas, receptions, banquets, serenades, and holidays… .All [foreign dignitaries] were entertained with elegance and aplomb by the president and the festive airs of the Marine Band, now forty strong…and stationed in the large corridor outside of the state dining room as it is today.”
The band’s role at State Dinners is not only to provide entertainment but, along with the food and décor, to help make foreign visitors feel welcome and at home. Kalakaua’s reception in Washington must have left a lasting impression because his wife, Queen Kapiolani, visited 13 years later in 1887. President Grover Cleveland arranged not just a State Dinner in her honor, during which the Marine Band performed, but also a naval flotilla down the Potomac River to Mount Vernon. According to the New York Herald on May 7, 1887, while on board “the Marine Band played the Hawaiian national hymn, which the bandmaster said, was sweeter than Sandwich Island sugar. ...The band played the Hawaiian national anthem on the return trip better than when the boat departed, the leader, Mr. Sousa, having secured the music from the Queen only yesterday and the band had but little time to rehearse it before this afternoon.” The Washington Critic newspaper account on the same day also reviewed the band’s performance of the hymn: “The band played the Hawaiian national anthem, after the company sat to table, entitled, ‘Hawaiiponoi,’ the music of which was brought here by the Queen herself. It is a stirring air and was very well rendered by the Marine Band, under Professor Sousa’s direction. Following this, the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ floated through the house.”
American musical hospitality was just as evident when the Spanish princess, the Infanta Eulalia, visited Washington in 1893. According to The Washington Post’s account on May 24, 1893, the Marine Band, led by then-Director Francisco Fanciulli, serenaded her outside her hotel. “Four pieces were rendered by the band. The first was the Spanish national air, followed by two other selections. Prof. Fanciulli entered the
annex and asked an attendant to ascertain if there was any favorite piece the princess wished played. She expressed a desire to hear the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’ During its rendition the Infanta appeared at the corner window, and, resting her hands upon the window sill, she leaned out to enjoy the strains of the American national anthem. The assemblage expressed their delighted appreciation by breaking into subdued cheering and clapping of hands.”
Even though many of these early visits were more ceremonial in nature, the Presidents’ efforts to maintain good will between nations did not go unnoticed. In 1902, German Emperor Wilhelm II’s brother, Prince Henry of Prussia, arrived in Washington, and according to remarks by an official in the Feb. 25, 1902, Cleveland Plain Dealer, “Prince Henry was particularly impressed with the very sympathetic reception received from President Roosevelt and with the frank and open hearted manner of the chief executive, which gave most genuine assurance of sincerity and good will. He was gratified, too, with the kind reception given him by the American public, as shown during his drive to the White House, to the embassy, and the capitol. This was but another evidence of the friendly feeling of the American people which he had already observed during his stay in the city. I can assure you that it gives his highness genuine pleasure to have such a warmth of greeting awaiting him, and he reciprocates to the fullest extent every expression of good will that has been given.” The article later mentioned that “Music was furnished by the Marine band, which played a number of German and American patriotic airs.”
The frequency of State Dinners increased in the 20th century as air travel made it easier for foreign leaders to visit Washington. After World Wars I and II, a State Dinner would be held after the President and his foreign counterpart spent the day discussing official business. That business interrupted one particular dinner on Dec. 14, 1965 hosted by President Lyndon Johnson for the President of Pakistan Ayub Khan. Between dinner and the evening entertainment
Johnson and Khan stepped away to continue their conversation. When they returned Khan was treated to a production called “Music for the White House,” featuring popular songs from America’s earliest days as a nation. According to Maxine Cheshire’s Dec. 16, 1965, article in The Washington Post, “It must have all gladdened the ears of an old soldier like Ayub, who is the son of an army bugler. Incorporated into the performance were two martial sounds now almost as obsolete as the honk of a dodo bird. To give authenticity to one segment of the score, the Marine Band located an ancient post horn and an ophicleide. ... It seems to be Ayub’s destiny to be entertained in the United States with memorable hospitality which is hallowed in historic significance.”
As the years passed State Dinners have also become celebrations of landmark treaties and peace-making policies as nations and leaders forge relationships. On March 26, 1979, the Marine Band provided music for the highly-anticipated State Dinner hosted by President Jimmy Carter in honor of Egypt and Israel’s historic Camp David Accords. The Marine Band was also on hand for the State Dinner hosted by President Bill Clinton that took place following the signing of a peace treaty between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization Yasser Arafat on the South Lawn on Sept. 13, 1993. For that event, then-Marine Band Director Col. John R. Bourgeois programmed such selections as Carroll Martin’s “Melody of Peace,” Warren Benson’s Meditation on I Am For Peace, and John Philip Sousa’s march “Hands Across the Sea.”
The White House occasionally makes musical suggestions, and First Lady Nancy Reagan’s special request for the Gala Dinner on Nov. 9, 1985, for Prince Charles and Princess Diana of Wales created an iconic moment in history. According to the leader of the Marine Dance Band at the time, Maj. Dennis Burian, USMC (ret.), the social secretary called to say that they were arranging for John Travolta to ask Princess Diana to dance and requested that the dance band have appropriate music ready. When the moment came, Burian led the band in
music from “Saturday Night Fever,” and history was made.
Marine Band pianist Gunnery Sgt. AnnaMaria Mottola also played music fit for a queen when she performed in the Private Residence prior to a State Dinner for Queen Elizabeth II on May 7, 2007. As she played a series of old English songs, she looked up and made eye contact with the English monarch, who winked at her.
When President George W. Bush hosted a State Dinner for Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Oct. 13, 2008, Mottola found out that early in his career Berlusconi wrote and performed his own songs. She researched his music on YouTube and learned his songs by ear. Although the opportunity did not present itself for Mottola to perform for him that night, the chance came a month later during the Summit on Financial Markets and the World Economy on Nov. 15. Mottola was in the Grand Foyer performing as the world leaders departed the White House. When Berlusconi entered the room, she began to play some of his songs and he excitedly asked her how she knew his music. Three times he came back to sit with her at the piano as Mottola also performed Neapolitan folk songs she’d learned from her father, who grew up in Italy.
While music may not be the first instrument of diplomacy between nations, Monica Hesse of The Washington Post suggested in her Oct. 12, 2011, article about the evolution of State Dinners that “the places where we understand each other are often not in Oval Offices but at round tables, engaging in that universal bread-breaking tradition that allows people to see one another as people, not just figureheads.” Later in the article she quoted Mary Mel French, President Bill Clinton’s chief of protocol, who said, “The dinner showcases America. Not only from the diplomatic viewpoint, but artists and writers and actors and scholars and other people in America that all have a part in the country.” “The President’s Own” is proud to have had a part in showcasing America’s finest music and musicians since the beginning of this historic tradition.