Notes by TŌN flutist Matthew Ross
In 1942, conductor Andre Kostelanetz commissioned a “gallery of musical portraits” from three of the most preeminent American composers of the time. He requested works that reflect “the qualities of courage, dignity, strength, simplicity, and humor which are so characteristic of the American people.” Along with works by Virgil Thomson (depicting Fiorello H. La Guardia and Dorothy Parker) and Jerome Kern (Mark Twain), Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait was a result of this commission. The piece was premiered to rave reviews.
In writing Lincoln Portrait, Copland noticed parallels between his present-day and that of Lincoln in the sense of the emergence of a nation. Both were dealing with the devastation of war and the search for identity that inevitably comes with it. Copland chose to use original text to frame Lincoln’s own words, extracting from an 1862 State of the Union Address, the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, and the Gettysburg Address. He includes a note for the speaker on the first page of the score, discouraging the use of “undue emphasis in the delivery of Lincoln’s words,” and says that they are to be read “simply and directly, without a trace of exaggerated sentiment.” The focus needs to be on the complete “sincerity of manner” and not on acting ability. Copland recognized that Lincoln’s poignant words held all the dramatic implication necessary for the affect to be felt by the audience.
Copland’s Americana Style
Lincoln Portrait is a prime example of Copland’s distinct Americana style. He first started developing his idea of the “American sound” after hearing the Library of Congress’ newly released recordings of American folk music in 1936. Most of these recordings were extremely simplistic, using only a guitar or banjo to accompany a solo voice. Copland’s first explicit reflection of these recordings is Billy the Kid, a ballet written in 1938. Lincoln Portrait employs all of the same musical devices, most notably his frequent use of the intervals of a fourth and fifth (like the tuning of guitar and banjo strings) and his inclusion of folk song. In the case of Lincoln Portrait, he chose to include the ballad “On Springfield Mountain” and Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races.” Copland hoped these musical quotes would adequately represent the gentleness and simplicity of Lincoln’s personality.