Covenant Alumnus Writes Music for Presidential Inauguration

In the midst of political division, a light of encouragement has come to shine over a chaotic election season. Despite our candidate preferences, when the day comes to inaugurate the new President of the United States, we can all appreciate the beauty and grandeur of the ceremony. That is especially true this year, because the music will be written by our own Covenant alumnus, Dr. John S. Wykoff, Class of 2004.

Right now, Wykoff is currently writing an arrangement and an original composition for the inauguration on January 20.

“Covenant taught me to be a thinking person,” Wykoff expressed, “to think critically, and also to see everything I do in light of God’s Kingdom, and in that way it was good preparation for all kinds of things but particularly for the way I think about my calling as a composer.”

According to the Times Free Press, it is Wykoff’s goal and great desire that his pieces give hope to a hurting nation split by a “crazy election.”

The Christian faith, Wykoff expressed, influences the motivation and inspiration behind one’s work, and that drive influences the way Christian composers view their music.

“Traditionally, composers, especially in the 20th century, are seen as artists who often think of themselves as prophetic, but I tend to see the artist more as a servant,” said Wykoff. “I think that idea comes out of the faith.”

After receiving his bachelor degree in Music and Philosophy at Covenant College, Wykoff completed his masters in Music Composition at Queens College and his doctorate study in the same field at the City University of New York. For the past six years, he has worked as the Assistant Professor of Music Theory and Composition at Lee University’s School of Music.

In the past, the nationally and internationally-acclaimed contemporary ensembles, the Cygnus Ensemble, Second Instrumental Unit, and the Mivos Quartet have performed Wykoff’s pieces.

A few weeks ago, Cameron LaBarr, the director of choral studies at Missouri State University and former assistant professor of choral music at Lee University, called Wykoff to ask him to write the music for the inauguration. “I was grateful that my friend, Cameron LaBarr, would think of me,” Wykoff noted, “I’m not the only composer in the world who could do this.”

Wykoff’s first piece will be an arrangement of the Appalachian folk song, “Beautiful Morning,” while the second is an original piece with lyrics written by the poet Michael Dennis Browne.

Typically, a composer has a year or longer to compose a new which would typically require a year or longer to compile a new composition. Wykoff was given a month. Despite the time crunch, Wykoff is not nervous at all but simply feels honored to be in his position, saying he is “thrilled for the opportunity.”

“Every single one of my pieces is a little different,” said Wykoff. “There’s not one particular style. One of my pieces [for January’s presidential inauguration] certainly owes a debt to American composer Alice Parker”— a woman Wykoff called “the godmother of American choral music.”

Wykoff’s original piece was difficult for even its composer to describe.  When asked to define the sound of his second composition, he said with a laugh, “I couldn’t say. It’s whatever it is.”

The Missouri State Chorale will perform the two 4-minute long pieces, one during the inauguration ceremony and the other, at a time that is yet to be decided.  

To the aspiring composers here at Covenant, Wykoff encourages students to study great works “but also try to compose for particular occasions as opposed to composing merely onto paper.” Starting with the occasion in mind gives the artist “parameters” as a guide, he says.

“Write for a particular occasion, like a student recital, church, or coffee shop band, so that your work has life waiting for it,” he said, warning young composers that writing  “into thin air” often leads to “a kind of mental block.”  

And to the general student body: “Be ready for whatever occasions or opportunities God presents to you”—for it is these opportunities that can make the world, even during a tumultuous presidential season, a little brighter.