Reach For The Moon

John F. Kennedy’s Vision and Courage


Reach for the Moon
John F. Kennedy’s Vision and Courage

National Symphony Orchestra Young People’s Concert 2016–2017
Michael Butterman, conductor
Marissa Regni, NSO violinist and host

David and Alice Rubenstein are the Presenting Underwriters of the NSO

The Space Race

In 1961, America was competing with the Soviet Union, now known as Russia, to prove which nation was stronger during a period known as the “Cold War.” The two countries weren’t exactly at “war,” but it wasn’t a game either. At the time, people questioned which country would lead the race to space.

It was then that President John F. Kennedy laid down a challenge: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

The Kennedy Center and the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) celebrate the 100th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s birth with a concert honoring his vision and courage to explore the great unknown called SPACE.

The Eagle Has Landed

For eight years, the United States trained astronauts, tested rockets, designed and built equipment, and planned missions. We were not always successful—rockets failed and lives were lost—but each time, they learned from their mistakes.

Finally, on July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 blasted off for the moon with astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins on board. Only hours later, Armstrong descended a ladder to set foot on the moon’s surface and declared, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Six million television viewers watched the live event in amazement.

Reach Out

What was it like to witness the first moon landing? Ask your parents and grandparents to tell you what it was like to watch this on live television.

Looking Up!

Just like President Kennedy had a vision for America, composers (people who write or “compose” music), have visions of how they want their music to sound. For some, their musical mission is to explore a galaxy of stars and planets, moon shots, space walks, and galactic battles, through these tools that composers use:

rhythm-long and short notes
pitch-high notes and low notes
melody-the mix of pitch and rhythm

During this concert, you’ll meet a few of these starry-eyed composers who soared to great heights. First up, we’ll lift off for Mars, the Red Planet.


In 2014, the NSO recorded Holst’s “Mars, the Bringer of War.” The recording was placed on the spacecraft Orion and played the music as it orbited the Earth.

Meet The God Of War

Travel back to 1913 when English composer Gustav Theodore Holst (pronounced HOLE-st) looked up in the sky and was inspired to write seven “mood pieces” collectively called The Planets. Each piece represented a different planet known at that time.

Now, Holst wasn’t the first person to look at the night sky with wonder. In ancient times, people stared at the heavens and believed in the movements of “celestial bodies” and their influence over people on Earth. In fact, Holst based his piece about Mars more on the Roman god of war of the same name, than on any characteristics of the “red planet.” When you listen to Holst’s “Mars, the Bringer of War,” you’ll hear those trumpet calls, military rhythms, and clashing harmonies marching us straight into battle.

Time to blast off and meet three more composers with a lot in common.

B Boys

Listen for Beethoven’s opening of four simple notes: “da-da-da-DUM,” “da-da-da-DUM,” also known as SSSL, or short-short-short-long. This motif, or musical theme, is repeated throughout the composition. There’ll be more about this motif later!

When Music Knows No Bounds

When American composer Mason Bates re-imaged the first American spacewalk of Gemini IV, he turned up the volume on astronaut Edward White’s words. The result: "Gemini in the Solar Wind”—where clips of White’s words and mission control’s communication static blended with soaring symphonic music—captures the massiveness and mystery of space.

Mason Bates is the Kennedy Center’s resident composer. Although raised in Richmond, Virginia, where he first studied classical piano, it was as a DJ in New York City where Bates became fascinated with electronic dance music. Like President Kennedy who had the courage to expand our space program, Bates took on the musical challenge of mixing electronica—music that features the use of synthesizers, electronic percussion, or samples of recorded music or sound—with orchestral music.

Is There Anyone Out There?

It is natural to wonder whether other life forms exist in our solar system. If so, how will we communicate with them? How can we tell them about our world, our humanity? Well, think about a traveling time capsule carrying our sounds, music, images, thoughts, and messages. And, what if you placed that capsule on a spacecraft and sent it on a mission that would last forever. Takes vision and courage, right?

Now back in 1977, there weren’t any CDs—yet! So we created a “golden record” containing these sound and visual messages for all those extraterrestrials out there. Imagine this… Voyager I and Voyager II are still out there today ready to meet and greet our galactic partners. In fact, two of the world’s most famous composers are featured on the Golden Record: Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven.

Go Back to Bach

Bach was born into a family of German musicians and made his own name as a composer and musician in the early 1700s. He is considered a brilliant composer because of his technical skill, the detailed patterns in his music, and the sheer beauty of his compositions.

Since his father was a professional violinist, Bach grew up surrounded by the sound of the violin. He composed several masterpieces for the violin, including his Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor. A concerto allows a composer and a solo performer to “show off” his or her ability to write for and play a particular instrument. Which brings us to our host, Marissa Regni. During the concert, you'll learn how as a little girl Marissa was inspired to learn this violin concerto written by one of her favorite composers, Mr. Bach.

Takes Courage to Dare Deafness

Ludwig van Beethoven (LOOD-vig VAHN BAY-toh-ven) was born in a small German city in 1770. He started playing the piano when he was very small—so small he had to stand on the piano bench to reach the keys. At age 10, he gave his first public piano performance. At 11, he quit school to pursue a full-time musical career. In his early 20s, Beethoven began improvising on the piano.

Then, silence. At 27, Beethoven noticed he could no longer hear high notes. Over the next 20 years, Beethoven slowly became completely deaf. No one knows for sure what caused Beethoven’s deafness. While some would have left his musical dreams behind, Beethoven continued to compose. Now that’s courage!

And here’s another interesting fact: There’s a crater named after Beethoven on the planet Mercury!


Ireland included a definition of the word “epic” in his opening pages of his musical score: "Concerning some heroic action or series of actions and events of deep and lasting significance in the history of a nation or the race."

Profiles in Courage

John F. Kennedy wrote a book of short biographies about eight senators from America’s past who made courageous decisions and performed brave acts. For many others, the call for bravery is never stronger than during times of war. Let’s meet two composers who recognized the call for courage when it mattered most during times of war—one real, one imaginary.

Marching Toward Victory

British composer John Ireland was an extremely careful composer who put a lot of thought into his work. During the dark days of World War II, he was asked by the British Broadcasting Corporation to write a march that might help strengthen the courage of the British people.

Which brings us back to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and its short-short-short-long motif pattern. Do any of you know Morse Code? That’s the combination of short and long sounds and flashes of lights and electrical pulses used to signal messages—super, secret messages. Well, the SSSL pattern also means the letter V—like in the word VICTORY—in Morse Code. For sure, Ireland used the SSSL motif in his “Epic March” to comfort the British people that they would win the war. (By the way, they did!) During the concert, listen carefully for these dramatic four notes repeated throughout the music.


How do you write your profile in courage? Can you describe in a few sentences a time when you were brave? When you had the courage to stand up for something you believed in?

May The Force Be With You

In a galaxy far, far away, a writer named George Lucas created a story about an epic space battle between a bunch of heroes and villains. This was back in 1977, when Lucas cooked up a colorful cast of characters including a dark warrior, a princess, a funny rebel, and a humble farm boy who goes on to galactic greatness.

Even after seven films, the story still continues the themes of hope and inspiration, courage to fight off the bad guys, and working together for the good of all humankind. Lucas’s lightsabers light the way with music that has become almost as famous as the films.

American composer John Williams was asked to compose the music for Lucas’s first film, and many of the series since. Williams came up with the idea to link each of the story’s main characters with a particular theme, or motif. These themes are instantly recognizable by audiences and offer up clues on how to think or feel about a character. And by choosing “heroic-sounding” instruments like trumpets to rally the troops and string instruments to tug at our hearts, Williams tells us when to cheer, when to fear, and when to watch closely and listen well. During the concert, you’ll be inspired to soar into battle for what is right and just. And may the force be with you…always!

Before You Go

Download the YPC: Reach for the Moon Teacher's Guide

Download the Tracks

Things To Know

An orchestra is a group of musicians who play different instruments. There are four sections or “families” of instruments: strings (including violin, viola, cello, and bass); woodwinds (including flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon); brass (including trumpet, horn, trombone, and tuba); and percussion (including timpani, snare drum, and xylophone).

The conductor is a person who leads the orchestra. Conductors use their right hand to tell the orchestra the tempo (speed) to play, and their left hand to indicate the dynamics (loud or soft). Some use a slender white stick called a baton (buh-TAHN) as they conduct. At the concert, watch how the conductor communicates with the musicians.

Things to Know Before You Go

Before you get on the school bus and travel to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, there are some things you should know. No worries, though. While your teacher will fill you in on a lot of the important music stuff, there are a few other things you might want to know before you go!

Before the Show

  • Bring a sweater or sweatshirt; sometimes the hall is pretty cold.
  • Use the restroom before the concert begins.
  • Put away wrapped candy. The crinkle can ruin a performance. Really!
  • Say what’s on your mind to anyone sitting with you so you can stop talking and stay quiet during the concert.

During the Concert

  • Respect the musicians. It’s okay to laugh and applaud, but only when the musicians expect it.
  • Respect the person in front of you. Don’t kick his or her chair.
  • Respect the person behind you. Don’t flop around too much or talk to your neighbor.

Enjoy the concert!



Doug Cooney
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor

Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources

Music courtesy of Naxos America

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