A Lincoln Portrait

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            Aaron Copland is generally considered America’s greatest composer.  That is, it is he, through his compositions and through his essays, books, lectures, and other thoughts on music, who has done more than any other individual to establish a corpus of “serious” music in this country that has largely defined an “American Sound.”  He lived a long life; influenced generations of young composers; advanced the cause of art music in this country; and composed music that has delighted millions in the audiences of ballet, chamber music, symphonic music, radio, television, and the movies.  The son of Jewish immigrants, he lived for most of his life in New York City—or close by—but assimilated so much of the disparate elements of our culture that he came to be considered as representative of all of it.  In his music one finds jazz, ethnic, western, folk, intellectual, and populist elements and references—and much more: Cuban, Mexican, and European Continental.  But his wide-ranging intellect easily synthesized it all into an inimitable style (or small group of stylistic voices) with which his music spoke with a clear and unified expression.  

            His greatest musical influence was undoubtedly the grande dame of teachers, Mme. Nadia Boulanger, with whom he studied in Paris during the early 1920s.   Teacher of generations of distinguished performers and composers, she counted Copland as her greatest pupil.   Of course, while spending those years in Paris—along with the so-called “lost” generation (Copland was assuredly not part of it)—he was exposed to a wealth of musical styles and composers.   Of them, Stravinsky was the other great influence upon Copland.  

            Upon his return to the USA his early dalliance with jazz and “symphonic jazz” was more or less replaced by a severe, often dissonant style—one not often associated with Copland by much of today’s audiences, but definitely a life-long option for him in his compositions.  But during the 1930s his interest in socialist perspectives crystallized for him and he turned to a more accessible, populist style that has come to be his hallmark for mainstream America.  His ballets, Billy the KidRodeo, and Appalachian Spring, as well as his music for the films, Of Mice and Men and Our Town and other works all endeared him to a wide audience and made his reputation as composer of “American” music.  He continued that trend with music for the film adaptation of Steinbeck’s Red Pony, and even wrote a clarinet concerto for the great Benny Goodman.  How mainstream American can you get?  

             The advent of World War II wrought massive changes to American society, and its existential threat to the country stimulated an understandable surge in patriotism.  And those of the classical music establishment then—unlike much of it today—rushed to participate in celebrating our country’s history and values.  We all thrill to Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man; it was the result of a 1942 commission of eighteen of America’s leading composers for fanfares to honor and celebrate those fighting in the war effort.

             A similar inspiration led to Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait.  For the 1942-43 symphonic season, the conductor, André Kostelanetz commissioned Virgil Thompson, Jerome Kern, and Copland each to compose a portrait of the “magnificent spirit of our country.”  For his contribution Copland had initially chosen the words of Walt Whitman, but he wisely acceded to Kostelanetz’s urging to turn to the magnificent, timeless rhetoric of Lincoln, instead.   Those words, combined with Copland’s populist “American Style,” produced a profound work. 

            Those whose know and love Copland’s music from that time will immediately find familiar the musical “portrait.”  Copland wove together the simple elements of that style with his own melodies, but also incorporated two traditional American folk tunes, as well.  One—easily heard—is “Camptown Races,” which the composer chose because it had been used as one of Lincoln’s campaign songs.

            A Lincoln Portrait is basically in two broad sections:  The first is composed of three contrasting musical vignettes of Lincoln and his times.  The second introduces the narration of Lincoln’s words, accompanied by stirring recitative-like accompaniment from the orchestra.  The opening is tranquil, but ominous in its evocation of the constant dangers to our country—then and now.  Copland said that he “. . . hoped to suggest something of the mysterious sense of fatality that surrounds Lincoln’s personality.”  That he manifestly did. The music slowly grows in intensity, informed by a simple, three-note motive so typical of the composer.  As it swells in power and dignity, it seems to validate all to come.  The second of the musical vignettes begins with the solo clarinet, and is infused with much of the plain charm of Copland’s opera, The Tender Land.  Finally, the first section ends with upbeat folk dances that gradually are eclipsed by a broad, powerful countermelody that leads us inexorably to the serious matter of Lincoln’s text in the second part.  A dramatic smash on the gong and brass figures reminiscent of the Fanfare for the Common Man sets the tone for the words that follow.

            Lincoln’s words include excerpts from the Gettysburg Address, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and one of his State of the Union speeches.  Copland artfully crafts the accompaniment to the text: bold or quiet, dramatic or serene, wistful or triumphal—accordingly.  In the best tradition of music and words, they mutually enhance each other, and the union is a work that never fails to engender both pride and reflection regarding our great experiment in democracy.

             The work truly was an inspiration for the difficult times of the war, but about 1950 both Copland’s musical style and his popular place in society took a distinct turn.  His earlier support of socialist causes (he supported the American Communist Party in the election of 1936) made him a target of Red Hysteria and Senator McCarthy.   The Republican Party cancelled a performance of his Lincoln Portrait for Ike’s inauguration, and other indignities followed him for a few years.  

            His music began—but not completely—to return to the severe and dissonant basis that characterized his early work, and he disappointed those who commissioned works thinking they were going to get another Appalachian Spring.  By 1972, in his own words, it was “as if someone had simply turned off a faucet,” and he gave up composition completely.   He died in 1990 of Alzheimer’s disease.

 --Wm. E. Runyan

©2023 William E. Runyan