Peter Boyer is a lifelong follower of the Boston Pops Orchestra. He tells us about his commission to celebrate its 125th anniversary with a work about the lives of the Kennedy brothers
How did you come to write The Dream Lives On: A Portrait of the Kennedy Brothers?
Keith Lockhart, conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra, knew my piece Ellis Island. He felt the musical language was the right one for this project. The Dream Lives On is a 15-minute work for narrators, orchestra and chorus. The text of the work is primarily composed of excerpts of the speeches by the Kennedy brothers – John, Ted and Robert – with additional words by Lynn Ahrens, who was responsible for assembling the text. It’s in celebration of the legacy of the Kennedy brothers who are all native sons of Massachusetts.
How much involvement did you have in choosing the speech excerpts?
Lynn Ahrens and I both discussed and made the decisions. I’d already been thinking about doing a piece about John F Kennedy, so this commission was a remarkable coincidence. I was already quite familiar with the most famous and eloquent passages of JFK. It was a huge selection process because there’s so much material and so many wonderful quotes. We had to do something with JFK’s inaugural speech and you can’t have a piece about the Kennedy brothers without JFK’s famous words: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.’
Tell us about the style of the music and the premiere itself.
The music is filmic in feel, and at the premiere there was a visual element with a specially-created film behind the performers. Two of the words Lockhart used to describe the kind of piece he was looking for were ‘cinematic’ and ‘uplifting’. It’s a kind of musical language that I know and enjoy writing in. This piece is almost a film score in reverse, which is a great luxury. Normally the composer has to make his work fit the edited timings exactly; in this case I composed the score around the text as I wished and the film was matched to the score.
And the premiere featured not just the Boston Pops Orchestra but Hollywood actors too?
It was quite some time in the work, but when it got announced there was tremendous excitement. Robert De Niro, Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman, they’ve never been together in anything as a trio. I’m absolutely elated to have the opportunity to hear all of this. I grew up listening to the Boston Pops Orchestra recordings in the John Williams era from 1980-93. I’m just crazy about them. The Keith Lockhart era has also been wonderful, so there’s a strong personal element that’s gratifying for me.
Would you describe The Dream Lives On as a ‘political’ piece?
That term ‘political music’ is so loaded… How, I suppose, could one say that this isn’t a political piece, when it’s about these three great political figures. But when I was composing it, I thought of it more as a historical piece. There’s a subtle but important difference between politics and history. There’s one quote, from JFK’s peace speech: ‘Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we’re all mortal.’ Those words resonate as strongly today as they did then. For me that transcends politics. That’s about history and humanity.
Interview by Rebecca Franks