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A Lincoln Portrait

About the Work

Aaron Copland
Quick Look Composer: Aaron Copland
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Composer Portrait: Copland May 1 - 3, 2008
© Richard Freed
This understandably beloved work is a prime example of Copland's treatment of "Americana," and of the credible idealism that informed his identification as an American composer. The light-hearted yet substantial ballet Rodeo was introduced in 1942, the first full year of the United States' participation in World War II, and the luminous Appalachian Spring had its premiere at the Library of Congress toward the end of 1944, when victory was in sight. During those war years Copland also produced two brief pieces commissioned specifically as patriotic gestures; both had their premieres in Cincinnati.

Very shortly after the country entered the war, Eugene Goossens, the conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at that time, commissioned a series of fanfares from eighteen composers to open his orchestra's concerts in the following season. The one piece from that series that took a place in the permanent repertory was Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, which had its premiere in Cincinnati on March 12, 1943. At about the same time that Goossens announced his commissions, another conductor, Andre Kostelanetz, commissioned a "gallery of musical portraits" from three American composers: Virgil Thomson, a veteran "musical portraitist," composed two pieces, one describing both New York's colorful Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia, the other the writer Dorothy Parker; Jerome Kern contributed a charming portrait of Mark Twain (well worth reviving); Copland, who had himself considered Mark Twain as a subject before learning that Kern had already made that choice, eventually settled on Abraham Lincoln after Kostelanetz suggested that a statesman might be a more appropriate subject than another literary figure. The La Guardia, Mark Twain and Lincoln pieces were introduced in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's concert of May 14, 1942, with Kostelanetz conducting; William Adams was the narrator in the Copland.

In announcing his commissions, Kostelanetz mentioned "the qualities of courage, dignity, strength, simplicity and humor which are so characteristic of the American people." These qualities suited Copland himself down to the ground; they are limned in the opening orchestral sections of the Lincoln Portrait, which constitute a sketch of the still emerging nation as well as the still emerging Abe Lincoln. The music embraces the "open prairie" character Copland achieved in his score for the 1938 ballet Billy the Kid, and includes fragments of songs from the Civil War era, such as the ballad "On Springfield Mountain" and Stephen Foster's "Camptown Races." Copland told Vivian Perlis, for her oral history project at Yale University, that he

hoped to suggest something of the mysterious sense of fatality that surrounds Lincoln's personality, and near the end of the first section something of his gentleness and simplicity of spirit. I was after the most universal aspects of Lincoln's character, not physical resemblance. The second is an attempt to sketch in the background of the colorful times in which Lincoln lived. Sleigh bells suggest a horse and carriage of nineteenth-century New England, and the lively tune that sounds like a folk song is derived in part from "Camptown Races."

Copland decided to include spoken words because, as he put it, "no composer could possibly hope to match in purely musical terms the stature of so eminent a figure." He prepared his own text, drawing from Lincoln's speeches and letters, and undertook to provide "a simple but impressive frame about the words Lincoln himself--in my opinion among the best this nation has ever heard to express patriotism and humanity." He also provided "narrative passages, simple enough to mirror the dignity of Lincoln's words," by way of introducing those words and connecting excerpts from different speeches or documents.

Since William Adams first spoke this text in Cincinnati some 68 years ago, many prominent figures in the worlds of theater, literature and politics have taken on the narration of this work, among them the poet and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg, the Illinois statesman Adlai Stevenson, the unforgettable contralto Marian Anderson, and the former Prime Minister of Great Britain, Margaret Thatcher. In his late seventies Copland, having conducted many such celebrity performances of the work, began passing his baton to an associate and speaking the text himself. His first such performance with the National Symphony Orchestra was given at Wolf Trap in the summer of 1978 with Sarah Caldwell conducting; on Memorial Day of the following year he spoke Lincoln's words with the NSO conducted by Gerhardt Zimmerman on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol, and in the celebration of his 80th birthday, here at the Kennedy Center, he spoke them again with the NSO, this time under Leonard Bernstein.