Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait”

Tonight at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall I received unexpected medicine. Almost by accident, created by bad weather, I took Josephine, a dear elder and friend from Oxford (UK) who has been my classical music mentor, to a Chicago Symphony concert. We were attracted to Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony, yet the two short pieces before the intermission were even better. The highlight was Aaron Copeland’s “Lincoln Portrait.”

Short passages from Lincoln speeches are set to music. The readings are part of the composition, rather than the music being background. The words are direct, simple, powerful. The music highlights the power, especially the brass. Hearing it live, words spoken by John Malchovich, was balm to my heart, saddened as I have been by the sorry state of our democracy. Here was inspiration for patriotism based on what is worthy in our history rather than jingoism and opportunism. I highly recommend that you also take it to heart. Here are two versions among many available on YouTube.

Leonard Bernstein conducting; Aaron Copland himself reading Lincoln’s words:

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)

James Earl Jones reading:

Lincoln was a founder of the Republican Party. If only its current adherents would take Lincoln’s words to heart. If only all politicians and all citizens would take its words to heart and act accordingly. Then we would have a democracy and self-respect, as well as decency and hope.

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)

Maya Angelou reading:

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)

With Henry Fonda reading Honest Abe’s words:

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)

Amen, Sadhu

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