Lincoln Portrait: The Twists and Turns of an American Classic

By Bob Seay and James David Jacobs   |   Sunday, February 19, 2012
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Bob Seay of WGBH News and James David Jacobs of Classical New England consider the odd history and captivating power of Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait.

To hear a performance of Lincoln Portrait with the United States Marine Band, conductor Col. Michael J. Colburn, and narrator Brian Stokes Mitchell, click on "Listen" above.

Abraham Lincoln, by Alexander Gardner [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Written in 1942, Lincoln Portrait, by Aaron Copland, is a rare musical tribute to an American President. It played an inspirational role when it was written, during the dark, early days of World War II.

But it continued to inspire over the decades, with countless notable narrators giving voice to the words by Abraham Lincoln that Copland chose for his tribute.

Those words, though, were chosen from within a surprising cultural context, as Bob Seay explains:

If Lincoln's words express the highest ideals of American democracy, Copland's music expresses the diversity of sources that have combined to create an American music and culture, as James David Jacobs writes:

Aaron Copland (source: AP)

It’s hard in 2012 to appreciate just how original Copland’s Lincoln Portrait was in 1942. There had been other works that combined spoken text with orchestra, but the combination of serious public statement and serious artistic statement, with ceremony, history, and politics coexisting with music, was, and remains, rare.

The music Copland wrote isn’t mere backdrop for the words, the narrator not even speaking until the piece is about half over. That music tells a story, a story of both an individual life and of a nation. It’s also a story of diverse musical influences, reflecting the diverse musical strands that have come together to create an American music.

The beginning of the work is typical Copland, with woodwinds uttering soft three-note mottoes in intervals of fourths and fifths. That serenity, however, is answered by unsettling chords. It’s not unlike Ives’s The Unanswered Question and its dialogue between a stark, angular statement and its muddled response.

Hear Fred Calland's 1980 interview with Aaron Copland, from NPR.

Comforting, familiar harmonies make a return, culminating in a moment of repose. But then, without any real transition, we’re plunged into a jaunty fantasia of American folk melodies. It’s important to remember that the syncopated rhythms and pentatonic intervals of songs like “Camptown Races” are indebted in no small part to the music of African-Americans, which already in the 19th century was forming the basis of American popular music.

There are also subtle references to the music of Native Americans, engaged in what could be considered Lincoln’s other, less celebrated civil war. The dance-like tone of this section can be considered a sort of analogue to the scherzo in Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, representing both the joys and adventures of the individual heroic figure and the energy and the spirit of the nation and its people.

The strands come together, and the music reverts to the unsettled atmosphere of the work’s beginning. Then, just as we’ve almost forgotten about the speaker, he or she begins to speak.

It’s too important, Copland seems to be saying, to hide behind the cloak of artistic license, of interpretation and ambiguity. No, the meaning of this music must be spelled out, and when we hear the words of Lincoln we know why.

Copland has done us a service by providing a frame in which we can ponder these words, which turn out to be as relevant to today’s struggles as they were in the 1860s. The questions posed by the cultural conflicts illustrated in the differing strands of music are still being asked today.

Lincoln and Copland seem to have some things in common. Both pulled off radical, even revolutionary accomplishments while being regarded as accessible and populist. Both took the ideas of acknowledged radicals and made them palatable for a general audience. Both took their roles in the mainstream as serious, important missions, aimed at bringing wildly divergent philosophical camps together. And both were criticized by those selfsame radicals and branded as sellouts or traitors.

Beyond all that, they occupy similar places in our culture: the historical significance of each has been subject to regular cycles of reassessment, a process that began during each man’s own lifetime. Lincoln Portrait gives us the chance to consider them together, with all the resonance each man’s life and work have for us today.

- James David Jacobs

A Workshop for History Teachers

Monday, September 16, 2013
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The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross is a new 6-part documentary series on African American history premiering October 22nd on WGBH 2.

Building upon existing research and drawing from recent scholarship, Harvard professor and host Henry Louis Gates, Jr. will guide viewers on an engaging journey across continents and centuries to shed new light on the experience of being African American.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Henry Louis Gates Jr.
To coincide with the broadcast of this new documentary series, WGBH will host a workshop that will introduce middle and high school history and social studies teachers to a suite of new and engaging resources designed to enhance the teaching and learning of African American history.

Monday, October 28th from 4:30 to 8pm
WGBH Studios, 1 Guest Street, Boston, MA 02135

WGBH is pleased to announce that Professor Gates will open the workshop with a keynote address, which will be followed by a screening of clips from the series, a tour of the educator website, and a presentation of the teachers’ guide, lesson plans, and other classroom supports.

Educators who attend this workshop will receive the following free resources:
• Many Rivers to Cross teachers’ guide and classroom resources
• Many Rivers to Cross series poster
• A free 1-year membership to WGBH
• Educator resources and information from our partner organizations

» Information About Our Partners

Major corporate support for The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross is provided by Bank of America. Additional corporate funding is provided by The Coca-Cola Company and McDonald’s. Leadership support is generously provided by the Abby and Howard Milstein Foundation, in partnership with HooverMilstein and Emigrant Bank. Major funding is also provided by the Ford Foundation, Dr. Georgette Bennett and Dr. Leonard Polonsky in Memory of Rabbi Marc H. Tanenbaum, Richard Gilder, the Hutchins Family Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Support is also provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS.

The History Lessons of Health Care

By Phil Redo & Bob Seay   |   Monday, March 26, 2012
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March 27, 2012

nixon health care
Richard Nixon announces his health care plan for 1974 — one that sounds surprisingly liberal today. (YouTube)

BOSTON — Early last century, health care entered the modern era and started the long debate on national health care policy. The American Medical Association became a powerful national voice. Surgery was becoming more commonplace and the leading industry of the day, railroads, were among the first to develop extensive employee medical programs.

Read More

The State of the Massachusetts Republican

By Sarah Birnbaum   |   Monday, March 5, 2012
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Mar. 6, 2012

romney in ohio

Mitt Romney greets supporters at a town hall meeting in Youngstown, Ohio, on Mar. 5. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

 BOSTON — Massachusetts Republicans have the reputation of being different from Republicans around the country.
“Massachusetts Republican voters are more moderate on social issues for sure," said Tim Vercolatti, director of the Western New England University Polling Institute. "Now, you’re going to find exceptions to the rule, you’re going to find pockets of folks who are going to be more conservative socially. But in the aggregate, Massachusetts Republicans are still very different from Republicans in the South or in the West, in areas that are still pretty conservative."

What happened to the Yankee Republican? Strategists and voters discuss on "The Emily Rooney Show."

Vercolatti said the campaign rhetoric tends to be less about abortion rights and gay marriage, for instance, and more about fiscal responsibility: “Sort of the Main Street Chamber of Commerce Republican versus the evangelical Republican you’d find in the church pews in some other parts of the state."
In that respect, observers said, the state GOP hasn’t changed all that much from the last presidential primary four years ago. 

> >  Here's how Massachusetts Republicans voted in the 2008 primary.
But what has changed, according to long-term State Rep. Bradford Hill, a Republican from Ipswich, is the level of excitement.
"I think having Scott Brown get elected enthused a lot of Republicans here in Massachusetts," he said. "The fact of the matter is that once they saw we can elect Scott Brown to the United States Senate, they said if we can do it for Scott, we can do it for president, we can do it for the Senate, we can do it for the House." 
Registered Republicans make up only 11 percent of the electorate in Massachusetts. But in addition to electing Brown to the Senate, they’ve also elected three out of the last four governors.
The Polling Institute's most recent results, released on Mar. 5, found Mitt Romney leading the GOP pack in popularity, with 74 percent of registered Massachusetts Republican voters viewing him favorably. That's compared to a 33 percent favorability rating for Rick Santorum and 32 percent for Newt Gingrich. Read the findings.

How to Take On a Kennedy

By Phillip Martin   |   Thursday, February 16, 2012
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Feb. 17, 2012


John, Robert and Ted in 1948. (American Experience)

BOSTON — The Kennedy name evokes a legacy of public service, tragedy and scandal. While the family's influence has waned over the years, lingering veneration of the Kennedy past continues to make the members of that lineage formidable political opponents in spite of well-publicized scandals over the generations. Joseph P. Kennedy III is the latest scion to run for political office. His competitors will join a long list of individuals who have tried to best Kennedy family members — with mixed results. We look into WGBH's archives for an answer to the question many have asked: How can you effectively challenge a Kennedy?

Archival co-production by Elizabeth Deane.

WGBH's "American Experience" looks at the family's political history in "The Kennedys." More resources.

Watch The Kennedys on PBS. See more from American Experience.

Listening In At The End Of JFK's Life

By WGBH News   |   Tuesday, January 24, 2012
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Jan. 24, 2012


Kennedy secretly recorded over 260 hours of conversation during his time in the Oval Office. (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

BOSTON — On Tuesday, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum released the final 45 hours of White House recordings from the end of the president's life. The tapes, which have been digitized and can be downloaded in full, cover topics including the war in Vietnam, relations with the Soviet Union ... and Kennedy's never-to-be-realized re-election campaign. WGBH News' Jordan Weinstein talked to JFK Library declassification archivist Maura Porter about the historical significance.

A few excerpts from the recordings:

On Nov. 12, 1963, the president meets with a team of political advisors for several hours to discuss details of the 1964 convention and the issues that might define the upcoming campaign.


Undersecretary of state George Ball tells Kennedy, "We don't want to be bogged down in Southeast Asia forever."


In the final seconds of taping, on Nov. 20, Kennedy talks about his plans for after he returns from Dallas.

>> Hear more recordings.

About the Authors
Sarah Birnbaum
Sarah Birnbaum is WGBH News' State House reporter. Send her a news tip.
Phillip Martin Phillip Martin
Phillip W. D. Martin is the senior investigative reporter for WGBH Radio News and executive producer for Lifted Veils Productions. In the past, he was a supervising senior editor for NPR, an NPR race relations correspondent and one of the senior producers responsible for creating The World radio program in 1995. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 1998. Learn more at
The WGBH News team comprises the WGBH radio newsroom, The Callie Crossley Show, The Emily Rooney Show and WGBH Channel 2 reporters and producers from Greater Boston and Basic Black. 


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