Americans will head to the polls next week to elect a new president. One of the grandest affairs that the 45th president will host at the White House will be a state dinner, a formal event held in honor of a foreign head of state. Since the Kennedy Administration, state dinners have often concluded with entertainment in the East Room, featuring some of America’s leading performers. Music, dance, and theatre have all been represented, with the selected artists reflecting the tastes of the First Family. Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter showcased numerous classical musicians, including The Tokyo String Quartet, Martina Arroyo, and André Watts, while Barack and Michelle Obama have favored jazz and popular musicians, including Dianne Reeves, Sara Bareilles, and—most recently—Gwen Stefani at their final state dinner on October 18.
Over the past fifty-five years, solo string artists have appeared only rarely as featured entertainers at state dinners, with Itzhak Perlman, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Isaac Stern among the chosen few. But the first string soloist to appear at a state dinner was a violist: Walter Trampler to be precise, who performed on May 17, 1965, for South Korea’s president, Park Chung-hee.
Trampler, who played both viola and viola d’amore at the recital, was a natural choice for such a grand occasion. Born and trained in Germany, he came to prominence in the United States as a founder of the New Music Quartet in 1947; he would continue to champion new music throughout his career. His recordings of Mozart’s six viola quintets with the Budapest String Quartet in 1957 brought further attention and acclaim, and he was widely known in Washington DC circles, performing on multiple occasions at the Library of Congress during the 1950s and ‘60s. He became highly regarded for his technical musical brilliance and admired for his stylish attire and charming manner—qualities that would surely dazzle and delight the guests at a glittering state dinner.
But the viola itself was an equally natural choice to dazzle and delight the honored guests. Since the end of World War II, the viola’s reputation had dramatically improved: a growing number of viola soloists were encouraging composers to write increasingly challenging works, while colleges and conservatories were recognizing the need for specialized viola instruction. The viola was now a modern instrument, and in the post-war economic boom, Americans embraced everything modern. By featuring the viola, the White House was sending an explicit message that they were keeping up with evolving musical tastes (and the inclusion of the viola d’amore was just icing on the cake).
As post-dinner entertainment, the recital was scheduled to last just twenty-five minutes. For his viola d’amore selection, Trampler chose Jean Antoine Lorenziti’s La Chasse, which was actually written by musical forger Henri Casadesus, who also composed the viola concertos attributed to J. C. Bach and G. F. Handel. And while the published program listed the recital as closing with Jack Delano’s Song and Dance, Marcus Thompson, a student of Trampler’s at the time, recalls Trampler saying that he ended the recital with George Enescu’s Concertpiece—and broke a string on the final note. What a way to end the show!
In all, Trampler’s visit to the White House was a triumph, as First Lady “Lady Bird” Johnson mentioned in a thank you note: “From a State Department official travelling with the Presidential party, I understand our Korean visitors enjoyed the performance as much as our American guests.” The success was no accident: musicologist Elise K. Kirk, in her book Music at the White House, notes that “the Johnsons, with the assistance of Social Secretary Bess Abell, took great pains to program [music] carefully and suitably for each occasion.” Quoting Jack Valenti (Lyndon Johnson’s White House advisor), Kirk elaborates that Bess Abell “counted dullness as the original sin. If you were invited to an evening in the State Dining Room or East Room, then, by God, you weren’t going to be starched with tedium.” Trampler, with his fiery playing and elegant appearance, could never be accused of dullness, and he was an ideal choice not only to entertain the guests, but to demonstrate America’s increasing artistry in string (and specifically viola) playing.
(Many thanks to Marcus Thompson, Myron Rosenblum, and staff at the LBJ Library and Museum and New York Public Library for the Performing Arts for their assistance with this post.)
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