ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — It’s the kind of moment that is set in stone, forever documented, preserved, and a piece of history.
When President Biden gave his Inaugural Address January 20th, his central theme was unity. During that he speech, he quoted from a song written and composed by Eastman School of Music alumnus Gene Scheer: “American Anthem.”
"The work and prayers of centuries have brought us to this day What shall be our legacy? What will our children say?... Let me know in my heart When my days are through America America I gave my best to you."
Scheer is originally from Long Valley, New Jersey, and earned both a bachelors and masters degree from Eastman School of Music. Scheer originally aimed to be an opera performer, but he found himself working as a librettist for operas instead.
While he does other musical ventures, he spends most of his time working as a librettist: someone who not only writes the lyrics for songs in operas, but also is responsible for the plot, the structure of the whole piece, and has a major say in how the story is told.
Scheer moved from being a performer after 10 years in Vienna, to consistently working with some of the best composers — he never works on the music of an opera — including Jennifer Higdon, Tobias Picker, and his frequent collaborator, Jake Heggie, and performers, like Denyce Graves, Nathan Gunn, and Rochester’s own Renee Fleming.
A chance connection with Francesca Zambello, a prominent stage director — along with a massive portfolio he made during his time overseas — led him to work with Tobias Picker, someone he calls the “first prominent composer that I worked with.”
Many awards and acclaim followed, along with “American Anthem,” a song he composed that would make it’s way to Ken Burns’ PBS documentary, “The War,” as sung by Norah Jones. “Anthem” is one of his few non-commissioned works.
“I wrote it because I felt moved to write it,” he said.
He was originally inspired to read it after reading a book called “Miracle In Philadelphia,” a book he discovered his father — a teacher — was selling some of his library.
“[The song] is imploring oneself to action, to take action, rather than trying to convince others of doing something; it’s trying to convince yourself,” he said. “The whole notion of collective responsibility is at the center of the song; this sort of divide between collective responsibility and personal freedom… That’s been at the heart of the American experiment for 200 years.”
The song was first recorded by Nathan Gunn, and was premiered live by Denyce Graves in front of the then Vice President Biden at a federal event.
News 8 spoke to Scheer on his career, his time at Eastman, and the moment he first heard his song quoted from President Biden.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What do you get out of being a librettist that’s very creatively rewarding for you?
I love the art form. I just think it’s an incredible art form. I think opera is a glorious way to express the human condition, the human soul, the aspirations, the joys, the travails of being alive. I think it’s really one of the greatest artistic gifts that the world has ever come up with. And so I love working in this field, why I loved another aspect of this.
One of the things I love about it is that it’s a collaborative art form. I like the fact that it really only exists in the live moment, and there’s this handshake between the creator and the interpreter, and we’re all, we’re all pulling on the same rope to try to accomplish something that’s special and meaningful.
And I love the fact that our collective imaginations, that the result of what we do is a by-product of our collective imaginations, were all of these tributaries flowing into the stream. And, uh, and it’s something that we’re all doing together.
I love the collaborative aspect of theater, I love the challenge of working with these incredibly, talented, smart, brilliant people.
I love telling stories. I love the way in which it connects the whole experience of music, and theater and how it connects us with being human and sort of awakens a sense of possibilities in our life, and an understanding of the truth of our lives.
Talk to me about your time at Eastman. What was it like for you?
I loved Eastman. I had an incredible experience there. I think the greatest asset — I mean, there were great teachers there and great standards that were set for all of the students — but that’s my biggest takeaway from Eastman was the experience of being with all these other very, very talented students, and to see their work ethic and their joy in making music.
And the fact that it was like music was a language that we all spoke and that we all wanted to learn; it was our way of communicating with each other. These other students that I went to school with, who set these standards and inspired me to go onm, and hopefully keep that kind of joy.
I have it still; the kind of joy that I had when I was walking through a Kilburn Hall or something like that, is the same joy I have now when I’m when I go to a concert hall … Eastman was a great launching pad.
What was your reaction when you heard him quoting “American Anthem?”
I was like most of America and much of the world I was sitting, just watching the inauguration. I was very, very happy because I was pleased that Biden had been elected. I really felt it was a pivotal moment in our country… So it was already sort of a happy occasion for me to be watching the inauguration.
The speech was going by … I thought he was doing a great job of showing, a person of grace, great decency, and humanity, and honesty … And then all of a sudden he was quoting my song and, I was in complete shock. I sort of jumped up and said, “I can’t believe this is happening.” It was just amazing.
And then my phone exploded with, on calls with friends and family around all around the country. I spoke with my wife — she was at work — and then the first call I made after that was to Denyce Graves, who was the person who more than anyone has been responsible for the song’s success and for the moment with President Biden.
Denyce had not only has championed the song, and sings it so beautifully, but she sang it at Ruth Bader Ginburg’s Memorial recently at the Capitol. And that was the event at which, now President Biden and Kamala Harris heard the song. I mean, they might’ve heard it before, but I think that it really landed with them at that event.
She told me that she spoke with Biden who came up to her, and Vice President Harris, who came up to her after the memorial service, and said how moved they had been by the song… But they didn’t tell Denyce, or they didn’t tell Denyce that he was going to cite in his inaugural address.
I think his sort of moral compass to me sort of lines up with what inspired the song in the first place. It was a very gratifying and meaningful moment for me.
And we find ourselves at the Big Three. How did your hometown influence you in the degree you have today?
I had great teachers in the public schools. I had great music teachers in the public schools, these people who taught me music, they were incredibly, fine musicians and set a very high standard. I’m all for celebrating educators, and the public school system, and the profound difference that they made in my life.
And of course I’m talking about music and theater, uh, and of course programs have been cut across the country and it’s not just a shame; I think it’s a, it’s a danger for our society not to buttress the arts in the schools. I think it’s the thing that has the ability to create people who can connect to each other.
You know, I think about the great teachers I had at Eastman who were prominent musicians and such, and they were incredible, Tom Paul, who’s still around Rochester, God bless. And he was an incredible teacher, but like many people I’ll think back to my elementary school and high school teachers and the incredible impact they had on my life.
If there is anything that you’d want to accomplish next, or the next thing that you have, the next big achievement for you, what would you want that to be? And what would it look like?
I’m going to continue to do work with people that I admire, but it’s like playing tennis. I would say playing tennis against people who are better than me. It raises my game. And just to continue to, uh, um, do, uh, interesting work and, uh, work that has meaning to me
I’m working on a new opera with Jake Heggie that I’m very excited about… I have a recording that’s coming up on the Janury 27th, a piece I wrote about these violins that had been used at Auschwitz and other camps, and the stories behind these instruments. I’m very happy about this piece coming out of the recording coming out, which I think is quite beautiful.
Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?
Work hard and don’t wait for someone to ask you to do it, just do it. There’s a lot of people who say, I want to write a novel, somehow people who really want to do it, find a way to do it. They get up at five in the morning and they do it.
When I was in Vienna for all those years, for 10 years and writing these 30 or 40 pieces that I brought back with me, and this finished libretto of a, sort of a hybrid musical piece… So when I got this moment to speak with Francesca Zambello, I actually had the stuff to share with her.
It’s just about doing it and getting up and just getting to work every day.
Katherine Ciesinski, Chair of the Voice, Opera, and Vocal Coaching department at Eastman School of Music, also sent statement on Scheer:
Gene Scheer, one of our most renowned and beloved Eastman voice graduates, has made the beauty and challenge of words and music his contributions to the world. For me personally, his American Anthem has long been a stirring call to give my best in all I do. The song was most recently heard at the public memorial for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and I would guess that’s where it struck a chord with President Biden. I know Gene was unaware that his words would become part of the Inaugural Address and I can only imagine the moment he heard the title of his song—like hearing your name announced as the winner of a grand prize! What a thrill! On behalf of our Voice, Opera and Vocal Coaching Department, I congratulate our Eastman alumnus on yet another milestone in his creative life and thank him for the song that added such a powerful message to Inauguration Day.