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< Exactly | Main | Seeing music -- synesthesia >

Reflections on Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait"

Posted at 5:44 PM on February 12, 2009 by Fred Child (2 Comments)

(To listen to Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait," click here. Colonel Timothy Foley conducting the US Marine Band. Yours truly narrating. A 2004 concert at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, in College Park.)

Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941. The next day, the United States entered World War II. In the days and weeks that followed, a patriotic fervor swept the country. Mobilization was swift and determined on multiple fronts: manufacturing, research, manpower. And culture was turned to service of the cause, as well.


Conductor Andre Kostelanetz asked three American composers to create a "gallery of musical portraits." He wanted orchestral works that would celebrate "the qualities of courage, dignity, strength, simplicity and humor which are so characteristic of the American people." Sight unseen, the music was scheduled to premiere at a patriotic concert by the Cincinnati Symphony in May of 1942.

Jerome Kern composed a musical portrait of Mark Twain. Virgil Thomson wrote a set of waltzes inspired by New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. Aaron Copland originally chose Walt Whitman, but since Kern already had a writer in mind, Copland reconsidered. As it happened, he had recently picked up a paperback copy of a biography of Abraham Lincoln. He immediately hit on the unusual idea of creating his "musical portrait" using Lincoln's words spoken by a narrator - and Copland's "Lincoln Portrait" was born.

Copland's piece was an immediate hit at the 1942 premiere, and is the only one of the works at that concert to have a significant life since. Copland's music perfectly embodies the "dignity, strength, and simplicity" Kostelanetz had hoped for. His open harmonies and expansive textures, a sound he would use so effectively four years later in Appalachian Spring, create an optimistic "can-do" atmosphere. He quotes tunes Lincoln would have known ("Springfield Mountain," "Camptown Races"), and that most Americans even today can hum along with.


When the narrator enters (about seven minutes into the piece), the role of the orchestra changes. The music becomes a kind of soundtrack, supporting the mood and character of Lincoln's words. Sometimes pensive, with an undercurrent of tension. ("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.") Elsewhere possessing an epic sweep, the sound of history being made. ("...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.")

Through the 67 year history of the piece, narrators have come from all walks of life: Coretta Scott King. General Norman Schwartzkopf. Barack Obama, Margaret Thatcher. Walter Cronkite, Scott Simon. Tom Hanks, Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda.

The great history of the piece itself, and a rich discography of dozens of powerful performances and recordings make it a daunting prospect when the call comes: "would you like to narrate Lincoln Portrait"? I was deeply honored, and deeply terrified, when I got that very message from Colonel Timothy Foley in 2002. Colonel Foley was then Music Director of the United States Marine Band.

It's frightening enough to consider performing the piece in the wake of legendary voices like James Earl Jones and Katharine Hepburn. But...with the U.S. Marine Band? The group has been together since 1801, when Thomas Jefferson dubbed them "The President's Own." They've played for every President since, at every significant national event that includes music. (You may have seen them braving the winter cold at the most recent Presidential inauguration.) Despite a voice in the back of my head pleading for an excuse, a time conflict, a case of laryngitis...I said yes. (When a US Marine Colonel makes a request...it's mighty tough to decline.)

Rehearsals were at the spartan Marine Barracks in Washington DC. No need for me to drive, an eager and razor-sharp Private was assigned. (His bizarre orders for the day: escort public radio host.) The US Marine Band has a unique mix of cultures: military to the core, and musical to the core. Symphony orchestras have intense concentration at rehearsals...but nothing like the Marines. There is *zero* distraction. Palpable respect, not just shrugging deference for the conductor (who in this case is also a superior officer). Not a peep, not a sound other than that called for by the man with the baton. At the same time, these are among the finest brass and wind players in the country. They're artists, respected worldwide for lifting band performance to a higher level.


Colonel Foley was blessedly patient with me. As a once aspiring pianist, I paid far too much attention to Copland's musical notation around the narration. "Should I come in right ON the beat, or just after? Was I too loud? Too slow? Too...anything?" I wanted to impress with my ability to read the music. Colonel Foley's kind advice: "don't worry about where your words fall with the music, I'll take care of that. Live the words, embody the words. Digest the meaning of these phrases...and deliver the message." He freed me to be the voice of Lincoln, the voice of freedom and justice, to the best of my ability.

I heard Henry Fonda's recording of "Lincoln Portrait" this week. Wonderfully understated, letting the words carry the day. Listening back to my 2002 performance now, I can't help but think I was swept up in the drama, the theatricality of the setting: with the US Marine Band at my back, announcing the message of democracy to a sold-out concert hall. But Copland's music and Lincoln's words far outweigh my shortcomings.

Aaron Copland was once asked why he didn't just follow his assignment to the letter, and write a piece for orchestra alone. Why narrator? Copland's answer: "no composer could possibly hope to match in purely musical terms the stature of so eminent a figure...In my opinion among the best this nation has ever heard to express patriotism and humanity."

Comments ( 2 )

That's an interesting dynamic, when your conductor is also your superior officer.

In the arts, we value individual expression, among other things. I wonder if there are times that the US marine band's artistic level suffers because the players are 'following orders' as much as they are following a conductor.

But then again, there's nothing like the sublimation of individuality to keep a string section together...

Posted by Alex | February 14, 2009 3:00 PM

That Copland Lincoln's Protrait, with your narration, was the loveliest, most inspiring thing! Thanks so much for much for airing it, and for also making it easily listenable again via a single click.

Posted by Aanel Victoria | February 14, 2009 4:05 PM

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