This article was originally published on OCTOBER 16, 2011
Common Link, 2002
text by John F. Kennedy
for TTBB or SATB, violin, and piano
published by Yelton Rhodes Music
Common Linkperformed by The Maine Gay Men’s Chorus, Miguel Felipe, Conductor, with Charles Dimmick, violin
The Maine Gay Men’s Chorus was making plans to celebrate its 10th anniversary, in 2002, and as part of this celebration, the Chorus and its conductor, Miguel Felipe, commissioned a seven-part work by the six composers who had written music especially for the chorus during those 10 years.
The year before, my piece, The Ballad of Charlie Howard—a Kenduskeag Trilogy, was premiered by the MGMC. Charlie Howard was killed at age 23 in an anti-gay hate crime in Bangor, Maine, in 1984, and the experience of writing this piece in his memory was so intense—with much soul-searching for both my dear friend and fellow-lyricist, Bruce Olstad, and me—and so life-affirming, that I bonded immediately and forever with the MGMC. Thus, Miguel asked me to write two of the movements of this commemorative work, both excerpts of speeches by President John F. Kennedy.
Common Link (from JFK’s commencement address at American University in 1963) and its companion piece, The Enemy of Truth, (from his commencement address at Yale University in 1962) are the results of this commission.
At first, it was an enormous challenge to set words that are not intentionally poetic—though undeniably beautiful and profound. But as the compositional process unfolded, I felt immensely honored to be setting these words. In fact, it was kind of overwhelming to set words of such depth, so relevant even some 40 years after they were spoken, and I remain humbled by the experience.
And what really got me—and still gets me nine years after writing this music—is the line, “and we are all mortal.” In part, it was the realization that Kennedy was saying, “Why are we fighting each other? We’re all going to die, anyway!”
But even more, it was the realization that mortality, much as we want to fight it, is a gift. No matter how young or how old we die, we all have a finite amount of time on this small planet. Why not use every moment of that finite time to do whatever we can to make this small planet a more beautiful, a more accepting place?
If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can [help] make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, 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 are all mortal.