The Music Plays On — Copland Lincoln Portrait

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Aaron Copland was commissioned in 1942 by Andre Kostelanetz to write a piece that was a musical portrait of an “eminent American.” Copland chose Abraham Lincoln. What makes this fifteen minute piece stand out is that the first half is a musical portrait that quotes folk songs that were popular during Lincoln’s day, and the second half a narrator (and it’s not necessary that the composer reads music) is used to speak the text from a variety of Lincoln’s speeches and letters, including the Gettysburg Address. The words are easy enough to understand, in most performances, but here they are to read are you hear it again.

Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility. (Annual Message to Congress [since the twentieth century, State of the Union], December 1, 1862)

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. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country. (Annual Message to Congress, December 1, 1862)

It is the eternal struggle between two principles, right and wrong, throughout the world. It is the same spirit that says ‘you toil and work and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.’ No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation, and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle. (Lincoln–Douglas debates, October 15, 1858)

As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy. (Unknown, though in Lincoln’s Collected Works)

That from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion. That 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. (Gettysburg Address)

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Adlai Stevenson narrating Lincoln Portrait with Copland conducting, 1964

Over the years there have been many prominent individuals who have narrated and recorded this important piece of American music, from prominent politicians and sports legends, to actors and local TV news personalities. But the power of Lincoln’s words always ring true, like a clarion bell.

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Marian Anderson narrating Lincoln Portrait with Aaron Copland conducting, 1976

In 1957, Copland went to Venezuela to conduct Lincoln Portrait with the Venezuelan actress, Juana Sujo, as narrator. She was a vocal opponent of the repressive regime of the Venezuelan president, Marcos Pérez Jiménez. Copland recalled,

“To everyone’s surprise, the reigning dictator, who had rarely dared to be seen in public, arrived at the last possible moment. On that evening Juana Sujo was the fiery narrator who performed the spoken-word parts of the piece. When she spoke the final words, “… that government of the people, by the people, for the people (el gobierno del pueblo, por el pueblo y para el pueblo) shall not perish from the earth.” It was not long after that the dictator was deposed and fled from the country. I was later told by an American foreign service officer that the Lincoln Portrait was credited with having inspired the first public demonstration against him. That, in effect, it had started a revolution.”

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