The American Independence Day holiday is fast approaching. I updated the Post Series page on Good Music Speaks to include the series of three posts I wrote on the Violin Concerto by Alban Berg. Then I tried to think of what might make an appropriate musical subject for the upcoming Fourth of July here in the States.
When I try to think of a composer that had gone out of his way to create a distinctly American flavor in some of his music, I alway think of Aaron Copland first. Some of the greatest successes of this Brooklyn-born “Dean of American Composers” are the works in his populist style, mostly from the 1930’s and 1940’s. One of my favorite Copland pieces from those years is his Lincoln Portrait of 1942.
Lincoln Portrait is a work for orchestra and narrator that lasts about 15 minutes in performance. The texts of the narration are taken from several of Abraham Lincoln’s actual speeches, including the Gettysburg Address. It is a moving work, full of dramatic moments, and one that is very accessible. It doesn’t require a great deal of analysis to get the message of this music. I’ve included a performance by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra with Gerard Schwarz conducting. The esteemed voice of Darth Vader himself, James Earl Jones, is the narrator. I hope you can find a quarter of an hour between the hot dogs, apple pie and firecrackers this weekend to give it a listen. The text Copland set to music is included below.
Aaron Copland, Lincoln Portrait
From Aaron 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. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility.” [Annual Message to Congress, December 1, 1862]
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 will save our country.” [Annual Message to Congress, December 1, 1862]
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, right and wrong, throughout the world. It is the same spirit that says ‘you toil and work and earn bread, and 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-Douglas debates, 15 October 1858]
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. 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.”
Your commitment and research leaves me very awestruck and happy.
I am English, and have never been to America. This is what I say:
You could probably do with Abraham Lincoln now.
Thank you for your visit to my blog. If it hadn’t been for that I wouldn’t have found this great post.
I still have trouble not openly weeping, whenever I hear this piece. It came to me at a seminal point in my life, and I have cherished it ever since.
The PBS television station where I grew up once did a special about this piece (around the 4th go July that year), in which Bernstein was conducting, with Copland himself narrating. And the really great thing about that particular performance was watching the rehearsal process, and having Bernstein yell at Copland for putting the text in the wrong place. And having Copland say, essentially, “my bad…” and move on.
Of all the cheek – to tell the composer of the piece that he was performing it incorrectly.
Bernstein was right, of course.
What a beautiful piece for the holiday. Thank you for writing and sharing this!