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  • Ian Passmore

Music that doesn't suck, No. 40: President's Day

Today is President's Day, which means it's time for us to visit one of my favorite composers: Aaron Copland. Often referred to as "the Dean of American composers," Copland is often credited with capturing the quintessential "American sound,” that of great open plains and their pioneer settlers.

His dates are easy to remember—he was born in 1900 and died in 1990—but his most popular works were actually composed in the relatively short period between 1936 and 1945. These include El Salon Mexico, Billy The Kid, Rodeo, Fanfare for the Common Man, and my very favorite piece, which we will cover at a later date, Appalachian Spring. This week, our President’s Day topic is Copland’s 1942 work for orchestra and narrator, A Lincoln Portrait.


Copland had received a commission from the New York Philharmonic to compose a work honoring an “eminent American,” and so he chose President Lincoln. Since the piece is for orchestra AND narrator, it incorporates folk songs of Lincoln’s time, such as “Camptown Races,” as well as excerpts from his speeches and letters. There are also some general descriptive comments about Lincoln himself: “Abe Lincoln was a quiet and a melancholy man,” etc. Here’s the text…


"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)


My favorite performance of the piece features the Seattle Symphony led by Gerard Schwarz, and is narrated by one of the most recognizable voices of our time, James Earl Jones.

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