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Album of the Week: Aaron Copland's 'Lincoln Portrait'

Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait
Bettmann/Bettmann Archive
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Bettmann
Mrs. Coretta Scott King, widow of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., rehearses in Constitutional Hall for her narration of Aaron Copland's 'Lincoln Portrait,' presented as a part of Abraham Lincoln's 160th birthday anniversary celebration in 1969. At right is the celebrated composer.

What do soprano Marian Anderson, politician Adlai Stevenson, basketball star Julius Erving, and actor Alec Baldwin have in common? All have performed as narrators in Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait — the composer’s iconic 1942 vision of the nation’s 16th president — and furthermore, each with The Philadelphia Orchestra. Like other Copland classics, this ode to Abraham Lincoln has long captured the popular imagination. Its message feels pointedly relevant on this Election Day.

Copland’s opus was one of three three commissions from conductor Andre Kostelanetz, who had in mind “a musical portrait gallery of great Americans.” Jerome Kern created Portrait for Orchestra: Mark Twain, and Virgil Thomson wrote two short works, one for New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (The Mayor LaGuardia Waltzes) and the other in honor of a journalist colleague at the New York Herald Tribune (Canons for Dorothy Thompson).

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For his project, Copland drew texts from three sources: Lincoln’s annual message to Congress (1862), the Lincoln-Douglas debate (1858), and the Gettysburg Address (1863). Copland spoke with NPR about Lincoln Portrait in 1980, and his remarks resurfaced a decade ago in this piece by NPR Music’s Tom Huizenga; the composer reveals that he drew inspiration from a Lincoln biography by British writer Lord Charnwood (born Godfrey Rathbone Benson). Copland combined the texts with music combining introspection and heroism, clearly intending to stir the soul.

Kostelanetz gave the piece its premiere in 1942, with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and radio host William Adams. Serge Koussevitsky made the first recording in 1947 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and actor Melvyn Douglas. The piece remains in active circulation; it will be performed by the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra at Verizon Hall on Nov. 13, in a fall concert that also includes works by Shostakovich and William Grant Still.

Copland sets the stage with plaintive woodwinds and glistening strings, before reaching a brass-fueled climax that many listeners will feel represents the American spirit. About eight minutes in, the narrator begins with “Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history,” as the strings soar in luminous agreement, underpinned by brass chorales as sturdy as redwoods. Amid his own strains, Copland incorporates quotations from two American songs, “Springfield Mountain” and “Camptown Races.”

Some might argue that the president’s powerful words need no sonic underlining, but Copland’s full-throttle approach makes for heady listening. After the culminating phrase, “...of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth,” the orchestra reaches a colossal and radiant climax, not unlike the heights he achieved in his Third Symphony.

Given a crowded landscape of recordings, what are the essential versions? The aforementioned Adlai Stevenson recording, still widely admired after decades, features The Philadelphia Orchestra and conductor Eugene Ormandy at their most seductive.

Copland conducted his piece a number of times, notably in 1968 with the London Symphony Orchestra and actor Henry Fonda, nearly 30 years after his potent star turn in Young Mr. Lincoln. 

Another Hollywood royal, Katharine Hepburn, joined Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra for a performance of the piece in 1987, captured by Telarc in typically spacious sound. Hepburn punches each word as if to teach humanity the last lesson on earth.

Each of these versions relies on the vocal timbre, inflection, timing and charisma of its star. But context matters, too. As Elizabeth Crist wrote in a 2007 article for the National Endowment for the Humanities: “Who reads the text, and how it is read, necessarily influences how the piece is perceived.” Crist highlights Fonda’s focus on “Lincoln’s humanity,” Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s emphasis on war, and how James Earl Jones (to some, the voice of Darth Vader), emphasizes the word “people” at the end.

Crist also notes that when Kostelanetz first conducted Lincoln Portrait in 1942, the performance was met with cheers. Later that year, the same piece met with silence, as many in the audience felt sobered by the realities of Adolf Hitler and World War II.

In a brilliant 2019 analysis of the piece for the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, historian Kaylyn Sawyer is struck by the wide range of occasions for which the work has been summoned: “It has been performed to celebrate victories of democracy, to console during times of collective strife, to inspire Americans toward greatness, and to exhort people to action when valued principles have been threatened. Far from being a work of hollow patriotism, Lincoln Portrait is an extraordinary and powerful musical memorial, received by audiences who liken Lincoln’s greatness to the story of an America struggling to live into his ideals of freedom and equality.”

The parade of famous interpreters further includes President Barack Obama, Danny Glover, George Takei, Vincent Price, Charlton Heston, Phylicia Rashad, Gore Vidal, William Warfield — even former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. On YouTube, Copland himself can be seen in an 80th-birthday tribute with the National Symphony Orchestra and conductor Leonard Bernstein, wiping away tears after the triumphant final bars.

For Lincoln’s 160th birthday — not long after her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated — Coretta Scott King appeared with Copland and the National Symphony Orchestra at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. Describing this moment, Sawyer cites Paul Hume: “When, if ever before, did it carry quite the same significance as from the lips of Mrs. King to hear those lines from Gettysburg.”

If the people who have made their mark with Lincoln Portrait seem like an unusual assemblage of individuals, well, that’s America. And as our democratic experiment meets its latest challenge, Lincoln Portrait offers an invitation to reconsider why our 16th President remains so beloved, claimed by both sides of the aisle. Copland’s tribute is a piece for all Americans — for all of us.

Bruce Hodges writes about classical music for The Strad, and has contributed articles to Lincoln Center, Playbill, New Music Box, London’s Southbank Centre, Strings, and Overtones, the magazine of the Curtis Institute of Music. His is a former columnist for The Juilliard Journal, and former North American editor for Seen and Heard International. He currently lives in Philadelphia.