The History of WHRB's Annual July 4th Program

This July 4th, join WHRB Classical for our annual July 4th broadcast from 1-10pm. These nine hours have been carefully curated by Mather Pfeiffenberger, Harvard Class of 1979 and former WHRB DJ. Here, Mather talks about this year’s July 4th program, how his interest in American classical music began, and how this broadcast became a tradition nineteen years ago.

Why is this broadcast important to you?

This year, for the second year in a row, I am returning to Harvard, where I was very active during my undergraduate years in the 1970s as a classical music radio broadcaster/programmer with WHRB, to produce and announce a nine-hour program of American music. The program consists mainly of classical music, but also has some jazz, popular song, and folk thrown in as well.

I look forward to spending my July 4 presenting this program for nine hours from the WHRB studio and missing fireworks, because I think that at a time when many have questions about our country’s future, presenting music created by our own composers and broadcasting these works over the radio can help unify us by reminding us of our common heritage and history. Moreover, American classical music is an important and all-too-often underrated and ignored part of our cultural and artistic history that contains great beauties. These works represent some of the best of an ongoing theme in our history: taking what Europe gave us and making it our own. That was certainly what Aaron Copland was after when he talked about wanting to create a concert music that was recognizably American, just as Debussy had done for France or Dvorak for the Czech nation. His quest has inspired many others.

What works will your program this year include?

I am structuring the program this year around recordings of works by American composers conducted by Leonard Bernstein to finish out the celebration of his centennial, which officially took place last season and this season. These will not be works by Bernstein, but by other composers such as Samuel Barber, David Diamond, William Schuman, Charles Ives, and Lukas Foss, all names that deserve to be more well known. Bernstein certainly felt that music in general was essential in fostering unity among people and saw championing the music of his fellow Americans as an important part of his role as an artist. I will also be including a few Bernstein rarities such as a 1947 recording of a horah dance he arranged, as well as a song using music from his soundtrack to On the Waterfront that was never sung in the film but was published as sheet music.

Between the Bernstein selections, I’ll be noting other composer anniversaries and I'll be commemorating through music several important historical events being observed this year that span the political spectrum: the 100th anniversary of Prohibition, the 100th birthday of Pete Seeger, the 80th anniversary of Marian Anderson's Lincoln Memorial recital and the New York World's Fair, the 75th anniversary of D-Day, and the 50th anniversary of President Eisenhower's death and the Apollo 11 moon landing, among others. Some of these commemorations will include non-classical music selections by Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, and Groucho Marx. I hope in some small way to remind us of past events, some difficult, that we have collectively lived through and survived and that can still bring us together.

I also believe that focusing on American classical music can serve to remind us that while we have many accomplishments as a country in manufacturing and innovation and remain an economic powerhouse, that is not all we should be known for. We are also capable of creating lasting, important, and meaningful musical works.

How did your personal interest in American classical music arise?

My own interest in American classical music probably stems from the first time I became aware of Aaron Copland. I watched him conduct the New York Philharmonic in a Young People’s Concert that was broadcast over CBS in December of 1969. I was interested in actually seeing a living composer on television rather than just a bust of Beethoven. Gradually, over the years I began to learn more about Copland and his life project to create a concert music that was recognizably American. I thought that sounded fascinating and wondered how one would do that. I'm still enjoying discovering different answers to that question. Anyway, that interest in American classical music led me to interview Copland and Leon Kirchner as an undergraduate at WHRB (David Elliott helped to make those interviews possible), to listen to Virgil Thomson speak a few times when he was on campus, and to approach Walter Piston twice for his autograph at 80th birthday concerts in his honor held in Sanders Theatre when I was a freshman.

When did this program first begin?

On July 4, 2000, David Elliott produced and announced the first July 4 American music program on WHRB. WHRB was broadcasting 24/7 by that time, and he felt that it should present some special programming on July 4 to spotlight American composers that would be more than just the usual warhorses that the other Boston stations were playing (e.g., Appalachian Spring, Rhapsody in Blue).

Because of my own interest in the topic of American classical music, I started to pay attention to the July 4 program, and as early as 2002, I began making suggestions to David of things he could play and sent him an item or two from my own collection to include.

This developed into an annual joint project between us. David continued doing most of the selection of the pieces and all of the announcing, but I would send him a list of major composer anniversaries (births, deaths), work anniversaries (e.g., the xth anniversary of the composition of y piece by Copland or another composer), and pieces tied to US historical events (as recently as 2017 he played a few Ives songs connected to the US entry into World War I, along with George M. Cohan's "Over There" sung by Enrico Caruso). Of course, I gave him many more options than he could use, but he usually did use some of them, and I would usually mail off some of my CDs to him for inclusion in the program.

Last year, we worked together again to assemble the program and he allowed me to announce it. We decided to focus on Bernstein-recorded performances of American music for the Bernstein centennial and we fit in various pieces between them, including some related to particular anniversaries. He "bequeathed" the program to me after we finished last year's. I look forward to hosting the broadcast and hope that you’ll join me on this nine-hour musical journey through American history.