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As I’m going through my score collection and writing about every piece that I haven’t yet, it just so happens that Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait comes right on the heels of the party conventions in the 2012 election.  This seems like as good a time as any to pay some attention to one of America’s greatest orators and most revered presidents.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is one of the titans of American art music.  A native New Yorker, he went to France at age 21 and became the first American to study with the legendary Nadia Boulanger.  His Organ Symphony, written for Boulanger, provided his breakthrough into composition stardom.  After experimenting with many different styles, he became best known for his idiomatic treatment of Americana, leaving behind such chestnuts as The Tender Land (1954), Billy The Kid (1938), and Appalachian Spring (1944).  This last piece won Copland the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1945.  He was also an acclaimed conductor and writer.

Copland wrote A Lincoln Portrait in 1942 on a commission from the conductor Andre Kostelanetz.  The attack on Pearl Harbor was fresh, having taken place on December 7, 1941.  The United States was mobilizing for entry into World War II.  Kostelanetz was looking for orchestral music that would celebrate the spirit of the American people (morale-boosting propaganda music, in other words).  Copland was among three composers (the others were Jerome Kern and Virgil Thomson) that Kostelanetz commissioned to create orchestral portraits of famous Americans.  Copland’s first choice was Walt Whitman, but since Kern had already chosen Mark Twain as his subject, Kostelanetz encouraged Copland to select a politician.  Lincoln seemed a natural choice, and given his powerful oratory relating to war and freedom, Copland chose to include a narration with the piece.  The piece begins with a solemn instrumental introduction based on the folk song “Springfield Mountain”.  A much brighter section portrays Lincoln’s exuberant youth, set to the tune of Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races”.  The “Springfield Mountain” theme gradually returns, calming the mood of the piece. Finally, at the 7 minute mark, the narrator enters, and the orchestra takes on an accompanying role.  The text is cobbled together from several writings and speeches of Lincoln’s, including his famous Gettysburg Address, and connected by original text that Copland wrote as commentary for the narrator.  Together, narrator and orchestra proceed through moods that are at times dark, challenging, pensive, hopeful, and at last triumphant.

I tried, and failed, to find a complete recording of the band version (transcribed by Walter Beeler) of A Lincoln Portrait on Youtube.  The half dozen or so performances that are on there suffer from poor recording quality, inaccurate tempos, unfriendly intonation, or any of several other unfortunately common amateur music maladies.  But this NPR story features a full recording of the US Marine Band with Fred Childs narrating.  The story opens with Childs interviewing Copland about the piece.  The interview happened in 1980, when Copland was 80 years old, and still of sound mind.

Copland himself conducts the London Symphony Orchestra with Henry Fonda narrating:

The folk song “Springfield Mountain” forms the basis of the first theme:

Stephen Foster‘s “Camptown Races” dominates the fast, youthful section of the piece.  Listen to Johnny Cash sing it:

A Lincoln Portrait has its own Wikipedia entry.  It’s also featured at an NPR blog, the American Public Media website, an “Insider’s Perspective” from musicologist Elizabeth Bergman, public television station WGBH, and the Kennedy Center.  Also, this Education Through Music lesson plan for fifth graders contains the full text of the narration.

Copland has a huge presence on the internet, thus this site will feature only the main portals into his work.  Please click far beyond the sites listed here for a complete idea of Copland’s footprint on the web.

Fanfare for Aaron Copland – a blog with information on the composer, extraordinarily useful links, and some downloadable versions of old LP recordings.  This is the place to explore the several links beyond the main site.

Aaron Copland Wikipedia Biography.

Quotes from Aaron Copland on Wikiquote.

New York Times archive of Copland-related material. Includes reviews of his music and books as well as several fascinating articles that he wrote.

Copland Centennial (from 2000) on NPR.

The Columbia Wind Ensemble performed A Lincoln Portrait in 2006 with Prof. Eric Foner, Columbia’s resident Lincoln expert, narrating.


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