Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Aaron Copland's "A Lincoln Portrait"

Continuing my series of program notes (this one to mark 4 July):

Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
A Lincoln Portrait

Alexander Gardner's 1863 portrait

To further the patriotic effort as America entered World War II, conductor André Kostelanetz wrote to a number of American composers requesting musical portraits of significant US national figures which he could include in concert programs. By the early 1940s, Aaron Copland was known as the composer of El salón Mexico and the ballet Billy the Kid. Kostelanetz wrote to Copland eleven days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, suggesting as possible subjects "George Washington, Paul Revere, Walt Whitman, Robert Fulton, Henry Ford, Babe Ruth…"

Fellow composer Virgil Thomson decided to portray Mayor Fiorello La Guardia of New York and journalist Dorothy Thompson. Copland at first considered portraying the poet Walt Whitman, until he discovered that Jerome Kern was doing Mark Twain, another literary figure. Jefferson was a possibility, but Copland settled on Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States who had held the Union together during the Civil War, a period of like crisis.

Virgil Thomson warned Copland about the problem of portraying such a lofty figure. Copland's solution was to employ selections from Lincoln's own speeches. He may have been inspired by Earl Robinson, who in the 1930s had won lessons with Copland from the leftwing Downtown Music School and impressed Copland with a song Old Abe Lincoln which interspersed spoken with sung text. According to biographer Vivien Perlis, Copland wrote to Robinson, "Earl, I’m stealing some of your thunder." But Copland made his own masterly selection from Lincoln's speeches, and brought to it the hopeful, big-hearted, idealistic music which he was beginning to conceive as characteristic of America's plucky and heroic spirit. 1942 would see Copland also compose the iconic Fanfare for the Common Man.

Copland sketched A Lincoln Portrait in February 1942, composed it in mid-April, and completed scoring a few weeks later. The 13-minute work is in three sections, and is strikingly simple. Copland believed in simplicity almost as a Puritan virtue, but he also knew the danger of overstatement in works of this kind. According to Copland’s description given in Perlis’ book Copland: 1900 through 1942, the soft opening is intended to suggest the "mysterious sense of fatality that surrounds Lincoln’s personality [Lincoln was assassinated in Washington’s Ford’s Theatre at the point of victory in the Civil War]…the challenge was to compose something simple, yet interesting enough to fit Lincoln – I kept finding myself back at the C-major triad." The second subject is based on the folksong Springfield Mountain. This leads into a fast section meant to illustrate the colourful times in which Lincoln lived. There is modified use of another folksong, Camptown Races, before the final section which Copland says "was meant to draw a simple but impressive frame around the words of Lincoln himself."

Lincoln is of course famous for the Gettysburg Address and its opening phrase "Four-score and seven years ago…" But you won’t hear that phrase in this work, nor "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal". Copland knew the overwhelmingly resonant potential of Lincoln’s words, and selected passages that the music could complement and build to a climax "that government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from this earth." The selections are taken from the seventh of Lincoln’s debates with Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln’s opponent in the 1858 senate campaign (Lincoln lost); a remark made in August that same year; President Lincoln's Second Annual Message to Congress in 1862, after the battles of Bull Run and Wilson's Creek saw the Southern rebel states on the rise; and the last 67 words from the Gettysburg Address dedicating the Gettysburg battlefield in 1863.

A Lincoln Portrait has become an American work for important national occasions. In America the narrator is usually someone prominent in public life, be it Gen. Schwarzkopf, Katherine Hepburn or Walter Cronkite. Musicologist William Austin voted Ambassador Adlai Stevenson as the Portrait's best speaker, and Stevenson, who knew from those 13 tense days at the UN during the Cold War what it was to coin words in a crisis, allowed Copland’s (and Lincoln’s) eloquence to speak through him. But the work also promoted American values in the world, and in the 1960s the United States Information Agency translated Copland's text into Arabic, Bengali, Burmese, Cambodian, Chinese and Hindi (to merely begin the list).
Copland fell foul of authorities during the McCarthy era. A Lincoln Portrait was scheduled to be performed at President Eisenhower's inauguration concert, January 1953. But an Illinois congressman named Fred Busbey objected that Copland had belonged to communist front organisations. A Lincoln Portrait was dropped. Claire Reis of the League of Composers fired off an angry telegram which in estimating Copland's stature just about got it right: "No American composer, living or dead, has done more for American music and the growth of the reputation of American culture throughout the civilized world than Aaron Copland." When the University of Alabama subsequently cancelled one of Copland's speaking engagements Copland wrote to the university in words recalling Lincoln: "It makes clear that freedom of thought is endangered in America if a large university such as yours can be intimidated by the allegations of a single individual." The bloodhounds of 'un-Americanism' failed to notice what would later be accepted in general: that Aaron Copland and A Lincoln Portrait showed America in a good light to the rest of the world.

G.K. Williams
Symphony Australia © 2004

This note first appeared in program booklets of orchestras associated with Symphony Services International ( Please contact me if you would like to reprint this note in a program booklet. If you would like to read more of my notes on this blog please see:

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