Lincoln Portrait: The Twists and Turns of an American Classic

By Bob Seay and James David Jacobs

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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


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