program notes by composition > L > Lincoln Portrait

Lincoln Portrait

Aaron Copland/trans. Walter Beeler

Lincoln Portrait Soon after the United States entered World War II, André Kostelanetz, conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, asked three American composers to write works that would convey “the magnificent spirit of our country.” Virgil Thomson responded with Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia Waltzes and Jerome Kern wrote Mark Twain - Portrait for Orchestra. Aaron Copland initially planned to honor Walt Whitman but became persuaded that a political figure of world stature would be better suited to the patriotic purpose. Copland wrote:

“The letters and speeches of Lincoln supplied the text. It was a comparatively simple matter to choose a few excerpts that seemed particularly apposite to our [wartime] situation. The order and arrangement of the selections are my own.

“The composition 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 greatness and simplicity of spirit. [“Springfield Mountain” is the thematic basis of this portion.]

“The quick middle section briefly sketches in the background of the times during which he lived. [This section includes bits of Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races” which, when used by Lincoln supporters during his Presidential campaign of 1860, was sung to the words, 'We're bound to work all night, bound to work all day. I'll bet my money on the Lincoln hoss...']

“This merges into the concluding section, where my sole purpose was to draw a simple but impressive frame around the words of Lincoln.” [For the narration, which occurs only in the third section, Copland used Lincoln's words, adding his own brief descriptions of the former president.]

Aaron Copland (1900–1990) was an American teacher, writer, conductor and composer. Although Copland was instrumental in forging a distinctly American style of composition often referred to as "populist", he was a city boy, born and raised in Brooklyn. He composed ballets, orchestral works, chamber music, vocal works, opera and film scores. He is best known for works he wrote in the 1930s and 1940s including the ballets Appalachian Spring , Billy the Kid and Rodeo , and “Fanfare for the Common Man.”