Ghost from war past: The Portrait by Aaron Copland

A man with a strong personality is that one who, commissioned in a time of war to make a musical portrait of a fellow countryman decides that he wants to depict Wal Whitman, a famous peacemaker. That the man ended up working on a portrait of Abraham Lincoln reflects not only the seriousness of times but also the awareness and tactfulness of the same man, being able to let down his own pet idea for what was considered a better option for that particular moment in time, an inspiring piece of art in time of need. The fact that the piece itself is a black swan in classical music, and a moving mix of folklore, History, voice and music, a true avant-la-lettre multimedia artwork speaks of the genius that man was. The name of the man was Aaron Copland.

Now, you probably do not know the name. Never heard of it, don’t you? That is the problem with classical music: take a good central-European name and everyone would think “yes, I kind of know that one”. But US nationals are far more related in the public’s imagination with rock (and pop) than classical when it comes to music. Nevertheless, Aaron Copland is considered one of the (if not “the”) best US composers, and was even called “the Dean of American composers”, and his works, specially those of the 1930’s and 40’s, are fundamental in defining a true “American” style of composition, distinctive in its openness and accessibility. The use of popular tunes is another trademark, as in A Lincoln portrait and, as is the case with the use of spoken recitations of the depicted’s own words, while it was not original, Copland took it to new heights.

The Portrait was commissioned by conductor (ironically of Russian origin) André Kostelanetz, along with some other “patriotic” works in the eve and first stages of WWII, hence the need for some patriotic and quite warlike theme and the inconsistency of Whitman as a choice. By the time Copland finished the score, in April 1942, the USA had suffered the bitter attack on Pearl Harbour, Japan Army was steamrolling the allied Armies and General MacArthur had been compelled to leave the Philippines. Moral was low, and a boost was needed. And who do you resort to when it comes to moral boost and bitter wars in the USA? Yes, sir, Honest Abe is the answer. A larger than life figure, an anchor to which the desolate American population could feel themselves tied, and thence gain some moral strength.

So Copland set to work, and he decided to use this awkward composite of music and wording, recreating some of the most brilliant moments of Lincoln as Head of the State and, in particular, the all-famous Gettysburg Address.

This is considered one of the finest pieces of public oratory ever, although it was not meant to be the centerpiece of the ceremony of dedication of the National Cemetery at the place of the battle. In fact it lasts no more than ten sentences and Lincoln could read it in just few minutes. In the other hand lies the not so memorable Oration, by Edward Everett, which extended for at least two hours and is now long forgotten. In the address Lincoln was able to summarise the then new concept of Civil War as a fight for freedom (mainly that of the slaves) and the preservation of Democracy as a form of Government. The words “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, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” should ring a bell here. Now that the US were fighting abject tyrannies in the likes of Hitler and Tojo, the struggle was not only for freedom but also for the preservation of Democracy as a form of Government, as it had been, according to Lincoln, during the Civil War. So fitting was the election of Lincoln given the momentum of war, so important was the inclusion of words from the Gettysburg Address in the piece. History was to be taken from the past and thrown into the future to have an impact, at least at theoretical, moral levels in the developing of this new war.

The fact is that the piece is still been staged in a variety of National occasions, including 4th of July, Memorial Day, and even Lincoln’s own Bicentennial Celebration; occasions that are prone to show national pride in the exact same values that Lincoln was trying to convey in his short, almost humble, speech that cold Thursday back in 1863.

From the musical point of view, again, the piece is an exquisite oddity. The work opens with what seems to be a call to Lincoln’s youth in the frontier, struggling in a log cabin, surrounded by wilderness. After that some popular tunes get into the score, seemingly even quotes for the once very popular “Camptown Races” and “Springfield mountain”, the latter believed to be a wink to Lincoln’s links with Springfield, Illinois. Lincoln was, after all, a people’s man. Then the music reach new heights of solemnity while Lincoln’s own words are spoken, and some biographical notes add context to the man: inspiring calls to save the country and raise with the occasion, appeals to responsibility, indictments against tyranny…the music emphasizes the words, giving the protagonism to the speaker’s voice, with brass and percussion taking the lead in what sometimes sounds like a call to arms, then giving way to strings and subtle chords to mark the coming of his Gettysburg Address. This is underlined by the use of a single trumpet, calmly supported by the orchestra, in a somewhat military, extremely fitting way, and leads to a grand final with all the brass explosion that one expects.

This was not to be considered as the best of Copland’s works, though, as some of his orchestral works based on folk tunes are best regarded. But it is, in fact, the one that conveys most sympathies. The war went on, and it was eventually won by the (I would like to think) Lincoln’s inspired Allied Armies. And Copland kept on working. He never composed the intended Whitman’s portrait, though, which comes as a setback, possibly being the best other side to war in general and the US Civil War in particular. His best known works could be the perfect introduction to what is considered “American” music: Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, Fanfare for the Common Man. Even the titles are truly “American”.

Copland wrote also scores for movies. Correspondingly, some very well-known actors and actresses have been speakers for Lincoln’s words in many a stage: K. Hepburn, Paul Newman, James Earl Jones…as well as some leading political figures, even President Barack Obama. We have chosen for you to see this version, in which the reading is done by Julius “Dr.J” Erving, famous former basketball player and Afro-American community leader and activist. Seems quite right that Lincoln should be impersonated by a representative of a race that he helped to free and dignify, somewhat grudgingly but raising with the occasion, as he would have said. So did Copland, raising to the occasion as well, creating a fascinating piece of Art and showing us how can History be brought back to help us coping with our own hardships. In his capacity as an improbable Historian, Copland’s work is deeper and sounder, yet brief, than many written pages.

“We cannot scape History”. Abraham Lincoln.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s