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ClassicsOnline Home » Orchestral Music - IVES, C. / PERSICHETTI, V. / HARRIS, R. / BACON, E. / GOULD, M. / McKAY, G.F. / TUROK, P. (Lincoln Portraits) (Slatkin)
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), sixteenth President of the United States, has inspired many works of literature, art and music. To celebrate the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, the Nashville Symphony, Leonard Slatkin and Naxos have selected eight important works by leading American composers, some setting Lincoln’s own immortal words, some words of poets inspired by him, others based on Lincoln’s life and ideals. Turok’s Variations on an American Song: Aspects of Lincoln and Liberty is based on a folk tune Lincoln used as a campaign song, Rosin the Bow.
By David Denton
Abraham Lincoln Portraits
Ives • Persichetti • Harris • Bacon • Gould • McKay • Turok • Copland
Lincoln as Inspiration
Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865), sixteenth President of the United States, has inspired as many works of literature, fine art, and music as any statesman in history—his deeds and principles resonate in every age. To prepare this collection celebrating the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, the Nashville Symphony, Leonard Slatkin, and Naxos considered some ninety pieces of music ranging from large symphonies and requiems to chamber works and songs. Of the eight selected works, some set Lincoln’s own immortal words (Copland: Lincoln Portrait, Persichetti: A Lincoln Address) and some set words of poets inspired by Lincoln (Ives: Lincoln, the Great Commoner, Harris: Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight). The purely instrumental selections draw their inspiration from events in Lincoln’s life (Bacon: Ford’s Theatre), from Carl Sandburg’s famous biography of Lincoln (Gould: Lincoln Legend), from emotions on contemplating Lincoln’s ideals (McKay: To a Liberator), and from a folk-tune Lincoln used as a campaign song (Turok: Variations on an American Song: Aspects of Lincoln and Liberty).
Insurance salesman by day, composer by night, Charles Ives (1874–1954) was famous—even infamous—for his dedication to social and political causes and for his American patriotism. He seized upon Edwin Markham’s poem, which extols Lincoln’s idealism, his saving of the Union, and the nobility of his death, to compose one of his greatest pieces for chorus and orchestra, Lincoln, the Great Commoner. Ives dated the work 1912, but he was notorious for misdating his compositions, and Ives scholars suspect he actually wrote it in 1921 or 1922, most likely after the song version, which he may have composed between 1919 and 1921.
Ives draws on bits of existing patriotic tunes to impart the proper atmosphere, but here they are used more subtly than in some of his patriotic pieces. Into his own mostly original melody he weaves just a few fragments of “Hail! Columbia”, “The Star-Spangled Banner”, “America”, “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean”, and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. The chorus sings this melody mostly in unison, partly to give the impression of a narrator and partly to provide an anchor while the complex orchestral accompaniment rages around it. He does split the chorus into some startling tone clusters to emphasize the passage that begins “when the step of earthquake shook the house” and into parallel but separate parts for added richness beginning at “the rafters of the home” and “He held his place”, which includes a snippet of the song “America”. Remarking on the piece’s challenges for both chorus and orchestra, the composer Henry Cowell wrote, “but once accomplished it is one of the most unusual and exciting works in choral literature”.
Vincent Persichetti (1915–1987) spent most of his career teaching composition and “literature and materials” at the Juilliard School in New York and also as director of publications for Elkan-Vogel. He received more fame and fortune from the “non-playing” of one of his pieces than for the performances of all his other works combined. Just three weeks before President Nixon’s 1973 inauguration, Persichetti was commissioned by the Presidential Inaugural Committee on the recommendation of Eugene Ormandy to compose a work for narrator (Charlton Heston) and orchestra (the Philadelphia Orchestra) based on Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.
Persichetti quickly completed A Lincoln Address, but then began receiving phone calls from members of the Inaugural Committee asking him to delete certain of Lincoln’s comments about the Civil War because they might be offensive in the climate of the unpopular and controversial Vietnam War. He was surprised, since, as he insisted, the choice of texts had not been his, but he said, “Although I’m completely against what’s going on in Vietnam, I agreed to the deletions…I agreed to cut out a line that goes something like, ‘insurgent agents in the city seeking to destroy it without war.’” But when the Committee asked for even more cuts he drew the line. On 9 January, just ten days before the inauguration, Eugene Ormandy called saying his piece would not be performed, with no explanation from the Committee. A front-page story in the New York Times turned the issue into a cause célèbre, and orchestras throughout the U.S. clamored to perform Persichetti’s piece. On 25 January the St. Louis Symphony gave the première, conducted by Walter Susskind and narrated by William Warfield, though the piece remained dedicated to Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Persichetti’s introduction and many of the interludes surround Lincoln’s text with slow-moving, mournful harmonies, at times employing the instruments in hymnlike fashion, at others seeming to declaim like the narrator. The composer responds to Lincoln’s words “And the war came” with a faster ominous passage, and “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” with a climactic triumphal section before bringing back a quiet mood—now peaceful rather than mournful—to reflect “a just and lasting peace”.
Roy Harris (1898–1979) frequently turned to patriotic subjects, becoming most identified with Lincoln and Walt Whitman. Harris had been capitalizing on the similarities between himself and Lincoln—the same 12 February birth date, being born and raised in a log cabin—for many years by the time he wrote his first “Lincoln” symphony, the Sixth, in 1943. He turned to Lincoln again for his Tenth Symphony in 1965, The Brotherhood of Man in 1966, and his Bicentennial Symphony, No. 13 (1975–76), all works with texts by Lincoln for chorus and orchestra. Meanwhile, in 1953 he took up a Lincoln theme in a chamber work—this time employing Vachel Lindsay’s eerie poem Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight (published 1914).
Adopting Lindsay’s title, with the subtitle “A Cantata of Lamentation”, Harris wrote for mezzo-soprano and piano trio, wonderfully projecting the elegiac tone, the drama, and the text rhythms of the poem. At the outset, low sustained tones and pulsing chords in the piano support the voice’s wordless descending phrases, soon entwined by the mournful independent lines of the violin and cello. The feeling of unrest sets up the poem’s actual opening in which the ghostly figure of Lincoln paces unhappily because peace still has not been achieved in the world. Harris omits Lindsay’s third stanza, a physical description of Lincoln that might have distracted from the lament.
Throughout Harris uses changes of texture and range in response to the text: treble music, for instance, reflects the happier memories of Lincoln’s homestead, the yards where his children used to play, and the market; angry repeated chords in all the instrumental parts evoke images of fighting and terror. Particularly striking are the cascading parallel piano chords that precede the quiet “It breaks his heart” and the lyrical violin and cello duet that brings on the quiet dénouement with its yearning sentiments about peace.
Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Ernst Bacon (1898–1990) also excelled as a conductor, painter, and folk-song collector. Over the course of a varied career he founded the Carmel Bach Festival in 1935 and, after a number of college appointments, directed the music school and taught for almost two decades at Syracuse University.
His widow, Ellen Bacon, writes: “My husband loved American history and had a deep reverence for Lincoln, which was shared by his good friend and fellow-Chicagoan, Lincoln-biographer Carl Sandburg. Another very good friend of Ernst’s was the Pulitzer-winning author and historian, Paul Horgan, who wrote a Lincoln play called Death, Mr. President, to which Ernst composed the incidental music”. Though the play survived only two performances, the music, in the form of an instrumental suite, fared better: Ford’s Theatre: A Few Glimpses of Easter Week, 1865 received its first performance on 27 April 1946, by the Southern Symphony conducted by Carl Bamberger in Columbia, South Carolina. Bacon himself conducted some of the most memorable performances with the Detroit and San Francisco Symphonies.
The twelve fascinating miniatures that make up Ford’s Theatre center on the events of the week Lincoln was assassinated. In the Preamble portentous repeated chords and rich melodic gestures precede Walt Whitman and the Dying Soldier, a movement of utmost poignance with a gorgeous cello solo. In this vignette Bacon incorporates his song setting of Whitman’s “The Last Invocation”. Passing Troops presents a jazzy march, though it also offers a lyrical, slightly eerie middle section.
Bacon subtitles The Telegraph Fugue “an Etude for Strings – with Timpani”. He prescribes such performance directions as “unctiously”, “violently”, “light and clever”, “As if saying, ‘After you, sir,’” and “Like the ways of deceit”, as he reflects on Lincoln’s visit to the telegraph office the day before he was assassinated. Moonlight on the Savannah is a lovely, nostalgic movement featuring expressive clarinet, violin, and saxophone solos, leading to the capricious depiction of The Theatre, where at one point Bacon indicates, “with polished insincerity, as if “the show must go on”.
In The River Queen (Lincoln conferred with his commanders aboard this vessel), a carefree accompaniment, suggesting the motion of paddle wheels, supports a gliding cello melody, which soon migrates to other instruments. Bacon subtitled Premonitions “a duett with a hall clock” and indeed the portentous music is accompanied throughout by ticks and chimes from the percussion section. Pennsylvania Avenue, April 9, 1865, in “brisk march time”, incorporates the well-known tune “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”, subjecting it to a developmental middle section. This was the day Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, ending the Civil War.
Good Friday, 1865, named for the day Lincoln was assassinated, features anguished pulsing music, poignant wind solos, and “steadily mounting clamor” until a quiet section of “humility” takes over. Bacon depicts raindrops in the contrarily brief movement called The Long Rain, and marks the various solos “like various personal goodbyes”. He begins his Conclusion with jaunty march music in the distance, which erupts into “dignified” strains with ominous drumbeats hinting at the depth of the tragedy.
Morton Gould (1913–1996) made a name for himself as a composer for radio and television before he earned widespread recognition for his orchestral works on American themes in the 1930s and 1940s. He infused his compositions with quintessentially American elements—jazz, gospel, folk-song, and Broadway musicals. In 1995 he won the Pulitzer Prize for his last orchestral work, Stringmusic, written for Rostropovich’s farewell as conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra.
Completed in April 1941, Gould’s Lincoln Legend was a product of war time when patriotic emotions ran high. He had been inspired in particular by reading Carl Sandburg’s six-volume, Pulitzer Prize-winning, bestselling biography Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years (1929–36). He also delved into Sandburg’s The American Songbag, drawing on folksongs associated with Lincoln. In August 1942 he mailed the score to legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini, who wrote back saying: “Have you any objection if I perform your Lincoln’s Legend in my first concert at the N.B.C.? . . . I was much taken and fascinated with [its] incisive and penetrating musical strokes.” Toscanini indeed led the NBC Symphony in the première on 1 November 1942.
Lincoln Legend begins with muted contemplative melodic strands that perhaps suggest the open prairie spaces of Lincoln’s youth. In his “slowly rhapsodic” section, Gould invokes fragments of “The Old Gray Mare” (fashioned from the black spiritual “The Old Gray Mare Came Tearin’ out the Wilderness”) and “Old Abe Lincoln Came out of the Wilderness”, which itself was a combination of the “Old Gray Mare” tunes and the spiritual “When I Come out de Wilderness”. Sandburg says that as a candidate for president Lincoln had the pleasure of hearing his two young sons “sing it at him.”
A marchlike section introduces snatches of the great Civil War ballad “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, which Gould treats in ominous surges, punctuated with timpani “cannon shots”. More sprightly music (led by the clarinets) incorporates “Hoosen Johnny”, which Lincoln heard and no doubt sang on “convivial occasions” as he traveled the eighth circuit of Illinois as a lawyer. Naturally Gould alters and blends all these fragments, thereby allowing them to express a wide range of moods from a “village band effect” to his “dirge” for Lincoln’s funeral procession. As the music fades into the distance Gould ends with a questioning fragment.
George Frederick McKay (1899–1970), the first composition graduate from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, spent four decades teaching at the University of Washington in Seattle. He was especially interested in evoking a “folk feeling” in his many compositions that portray the American West. He composed over seventy orchestra works as well as band pieces, string quartets, and prize-winning works for harp, piano, and woodwinds, and also authored a book on harmony and one on orchestration. Most of the music organizations in the Seattle area have performed his works, including the Seattle Symphony, which he conducted on several occasions.
The composer’s son Fred writes about To a Liberator: “My father told me this piece was a celebration of the power of democracy and a protest against the actions of European tyrants who committed military aggression during the Spanish Civil War and the early stages of World War II”. The composer himself described the work’s impetus in his notes for the première: “This symphonic poem is the direct result of my friendship [with] Fabien Sevitzky. It grew from a memorable afternoon in the summer of 1939, in which we discussed the importance of the spirit and meaning of Abraham Lincoln to the American background and future. The music itself is not intended as a portrait of Lincoln, but rather the composer’s own subjective emotion, when confronted by the memory of this great man and by the saga of his life”. McKay impressed an Indianapolis critic by coming “all the way from Seattle” to attend the highly successful performance on 15 March 1940, by the Indianapolis Symphony under Sevitzky’s direction.
The composer also provided the following outline: “The music unfolds through a dramatic form, as the subtitles clearly suggest: 1 – Evocation, which is meditative, a summoning forth of the great and tender spirit which broods over mankind; 2 – Choral Scene, which grows from a mood of supplication, the faith of the common man in those leaders who have worked and died for human liberation; 3 – March, which symbolizes the upsurging and undying force of the belief of the people in the humanitarian ideals as championed by Lincoln; 4 – a declamatory section which may be taken as a musical intonation of those same undying ideals. The music ends [Epilogue] with a return to the thematic material of the Evocation, so that the close is in a quiet, pastoral mood.”
Paul Turok (b. 1929) has forged a unique and successful career as both composer and critic. His orchestral compositions have been played here and abroad by such prestigious orchestras as the Royal Philharmonic and the Cleveland and Philadelphia Orchestras. As a critic he regularly reviewed recordings for the New York Times and concerts for the New York Herald Tribune, and often participated as a guest critic on WQXR’s First Hearing. In 1990 he founded Turok’s Choice, a monthly review of new classical releases that he continues to publish.
As a history buff, writes Turok, he went through a Civil War phase in the 1960s and was delighted to find that Lincoln’s 1859 presidential campaign had fashioned “Lincoln and Liberty” by putting new words to the Irish tune “Rosin the Bow”, which he had liked since his “fiddling days”. In early 1963, as a visiting professor at Williams College, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, he used this tune for a set of orchestral variations in anticipation of a performance by the Berkshire Symphony, which rehearsed at the college and which gave the première of his Variations on an American Song: Aspects of Lincoln and Liberty there in 1964.
Turok chose the theme “not only for its historical context, but also for its beauty and simplicity. There are but seven different notes in ‘Lincoln and Liberty’: C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. (It is a ‘white note’ theme and can be played on the white piano keys.)” His entire variation set employs only these notes, though they appear in creation of an impressive variety of shapes and colours out of such simple materials, from the fitting presentation of the “fiddle tune” by violins alone at the outset to the massive full orchestral climax in Variation 9. “I tried”, said the composer, “to replicate some of the patriotic swagger of the campaign text itself:
‘Then up with our banner so glorious,
The star-spangled red-white-and-blue,
We’ll fight till our Cause is victorious,
For Lincoln and Liberty too!’”
‘Then up with our banner so glorious,
The star-spangled red-white-and-blue,
We’ll fight till our Cause is victorious,
For Lincoln and Liberty too!’”
The composer provides the following description: “The theme is stated by the violins and winds, then repeated by the full orchestra. Variation 1 (Faster) presents the theme “smoothed out”. Variation 2 (Slower) greatly varies the theme as a barcarole [gondolier song]. Variation 3 (Fast) serves as the “scherzo” in this work. Variation 4 (Slowly) first fragments the theme, then uses the fragments as a basis for a melody in the oboe and later, the full orchestra. In Variation 5 (Slower), the violins play the varied theme, then the flutes and harp introduce a triplet figure that becomes the accompaniment for Variation 6 (same tempo) which is hymnlike. Variation 7 is a round in the tempo of the original theme which leads directly to the marchlike Variation 8. Variation 9 continues the martial mood and reaches the climax of the work. Variation 10 is a final restatement of the theme in the full orchestra”.
Shortly after the United States entered World War II, Aaron Copland (1900–1990) received a commission from conductor André Kostelanetzas did Virgil Thomson and Jerome Kern—to contribute to “a musical portrait gallery of great Americans”. Copland selected Walt Whitman, but quickly switched to Abraham Lincoln when Kostelanetz asked him for a statesman rather than a literary figure. (Thomson had chosen political columnist Dorothy Thompson, in addition to New York Mayor La Guardia, and Kern had picked Mark Twain.)
Copland thought he could avoid the pitfalls of writing something too bombastic or sentimental about such a famous figure by incorporating Lincoln’s own words, spoken by a narrator. He turned to Lord Charnwood’s 1917 biography, selecting Lincoln quotations not for their familiarity, except for the closing lines of the Gettysburg Address, but for their contemporary relevance: the concern for justice and freedom. The Lincoln Portrait, narrated by radio actor William Adams, stole the show at the premiere in Cincinnati on 16 May 1942, and became one of his most popular pieces.
“The composition”, wrote Copland, “is roughly divided into three main sections. In the opening section I wanted to suggest something of the mysterious sense of fatality that surrounds Lincoln’s personality. Also near the end of that section, something of his gentleness and simplicity of spirit”. Copland’s introduction begins with the kind of slow-moving, wide-open sounds he made famous in his ballets about the American West. He then quotes the traditional American tune “Springfield Mountain” (clarinet solo with simple chordal accompaniment), evoking nostalgia for long-ago rural America and depicting Lincoln’s gentle spirit.
Copland continued, “The quick middle section briefly sketches in the background of the times he lived in”. Here the composer uses lively “folk” tunes of his own creation, replete with sleigh bells, and ingeniously manipulates fragments of Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races” to create the atmosphere of Lincoln’s youth.
“This merges into the concluding section”, wrote Copland, “where my sole purpose was to draw a simple but impressive frame about the words of Lincoln himself”. He quotes from an 1860 letter that Lincoln wrote to his friend Henry Asbury and an address he gave that year to the Cooper Union in New York, framing them with introductory words that describe Lincoln himself. The work reaches a climax with the famous Gettysburg quotation superimposed on a solemn return of “Springfield Mountain” by solo trumpet—perhaps reminiscent of a bugler playing “Taps”—and a majestic summation by the full orchestra.
Jane Vial Jaffe
Includes available sung texts, which can also be accessed at www.naxos.com/libretti/559373.htm
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