Lincoln Portrait (1942)
AARON COPLAND (1900-1990)
(trans. Walter Beeler)
In late 1941, conductor AndrŽ Kostelanetz commissioned Jerome Kern, Virgil Thomson, and Aaron Copland to compose patriotic musical works based on great Americans. Copland was eager to participate in what was considered among musicians to be a part of the war effort, even writing to the Director of War Information and its Music Chairman to offer his services, and agreed to write a piece. Thomson chose two living subjects, Fiorello LaGuardia and Dorothy Thompson. Copland wanted to choose Walt Whitman but learned that Kern had already selected an author, Mark Twain, so he turned to Lincoln as second choice.
Perhaps Copland’s choice was inspired by Carl Sandburg’s monumental studiesÑThe Prairie Years (1927), The War Years (1939), and Abe Lincoln Grows Up (1940)Ñestablishing Lincoln as a symbol of democracy and American greatness. Copland wrote that Lincoln was “among the best this nation has ever heard to express patriotism and humanity.” The values Lincoln articulated in his Civil War speeches, especially self-determination and democracy, were particularly relevant to America in early 1942, still reeling from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Copland had always been attuned to the American social and political atmosphere. In the late 1930s as a response to the Great Depression, he reconsidered his dissonant style and smoothed the rough edges of the modernist sound. Fearing the estrangement of the living composer from the musical public, Copland tried “to see if I couldn’t say what I had to say in the simplest possible terms.” American folksong aided his efforts to find a more direct style suitable for the general public. By inserting traditional cowboy, dance, and childhood tunes into his concert music, Copland found “justification for the life of art in the life about me.”
Lincoln Portrait contains two vernacular tunes, perhaps not easily recognized but still evocative of Lincoln’s America. After the somber introduction, a clarinet solo presents the first tune, “Pesky Sarpent,” also known as “Springfield Mountain.” Perhaps Copland was initially drawn to the tune by its connection to Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln grew up. The light ballad is transformed into a slow and solemn tune creating an open texture characteristic of Copland’s mature style.
A trumpet solo leads to an unexpected allegro, which Copland described as “an attempt to sketch in the background of the colorful times in which Lincoln lived.” This allegro presents Stephen Foster’s well-known minstrel tune, “Camptown Races,” here subject to Copland’s musical variations. Before the narrator enters, both melodies are combined. “Pesky Sarpent” then accompanies the first section of narration and returns at the end to underscore the most important words of the text, part of Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” while the solo trumpet alludes to the military dirge “Taps.” Copland composed music that borrows from American folksong out of his conviction that a composer must interact with his community and that American art music should be identifiably American in inspiration. This aesthetic found convincing expression in Copland’s wartime music and stands as his legacy to American composers and audiences.
Lincoln Portrait was originally scored for orchestra and premiered on 14 May by Kostelanetz and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. That summer, Carl Sandburg narrated a performance in Washington D.C. on the Fourth of July with the Lincoln Memorial as the backdrop. In 1953, Lincoln Portrait was programmed on Eisenhower’s inaugural concert but canceled when Representative Fred E. Busbey, a Republican of Illinois, accused Copland of Communist sympathies. Later that year, Copland was called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Yet a decade after McCarthy’s censure, the United States Information Agency distributed Lincoln Portrait to the world in every conceivable translation, including Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, Polish, and Ukrainian. Though Lincoln Portrait has been narrated by authors and statesmen, actors and politicians, and even by Copland himself, it had not as yet been presented by a Yale College Dean. Copland never expected Lincoln Portrait to be performed frequently, but it is one of his most popular and, indeed, most moving compositions.
Narration for Copland’s Lincoln Portrait
“Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history.” That is what he said. That is what Abraham Lincoln said.
“Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. WeÑeven we hereÑhold the power and bear the responsibility.”
He was born in Kentucky, raised in Indiana, and lived in Illinois. And this is what he said: This is what Abe Lincoln said: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country.”
When standing erect he was six feet four inches tall. And this is what he said: He said: “It is the eternal struggle between two principles Ñright and wrongÑthroughout the world. It is the same spirit that says: ÔYou toil and work and earn breadÑand I’ll eat it’....No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.”
Lincoln was a quiet man. Abe Lincoln was a quiet and a melancholy man. But when he spoke of democracy, this is what he said: He said: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master; this expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.”
Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth president of these United States, is everlasting in the memory of his countrymen, for on the battleground at Gettysburg, this is what he said: He said: “that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion: that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; and that this nation under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Tonight’s Guest Artists
Richard H. Brodhead graduated from Yale College summa cum laude in 1968 and received his Ph.D. from Yale in 1972. Since joining the faculty in that year, he has taught widely in the fields of English and American literature and has won the DeVane Medal for outstanding teaching. A specialist in nineteenth-century American literature, he is the author and editor of several volumes, including Cultures of Letters and the previously-unpublished journals of the African-American writer Charles W. Chestnut. He served as Chair of the English Department for six years before becoming Dean of Yale College in 1993. He was named A. Bartlett Giamatti Professor of English in 1995.
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