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| Abraham Lincoln Portraits
Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Lincoln, the Great Commoner (1919-22) [3:39]
Vincent PERSICHETTI (1915-1987)
A Lincoln Address (1973) [13:22]
Roy HARRIS (1898-1979)
Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight for mezzo and piano trio (1953) [14:10]
Ernst BACON (1898-1990)
Ford’s Theatre: A Few Glimpses of Easter Week, 1865 (1946) [29:43]
Morton GOULD (1913-1996)
Lincoln Legend (1941) [16:36]
George Frederick MCKAY (1899-1970)
To a Liberator (A Lincoln Tribute) (1939-40)† [11:18]
Paul TUROK (b.
Variations on an American Song: Aspects of
Lincoln and Liberty (1963) [9:18]
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Lincoln Portrait (1942) [14:31]
Barry Scott (narrator, Copland);
Sharon Mabry (mezzo, Harris); Mary Kathryn Van Osdale (violin, Harris); Anthony
LaMarchina (cello, Harris); Roger Wiesmeyer
Nashville Symphony Chorus/George Mabry (Ives)
Nashville Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
rec. Laura Turner Hall, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville,
Tennessee, 1 July 2007 (Gould, Copland); 6 July, 2008 (Ives,
Persichetti, Bacon, McKay, Turok), 27 September 2008 (Harris)
NAXOS 8.559373-74 [60:54
The extensive and helpful notes to these discs by Jane Vial
Jaffe explain that their contents were selected from about ninety
works written in honour of Abraham Lincoln. This is a formidable
total showing the crucial and continuing importance of Lincoln
as an inspirational statesman for Americans and American composers.
The eight pieces eventually selected are varied in character
and by no means give the impression of being written more from
a sense of duty than from real admiration.
The shortest work here is also the earliest, and probably the
best. Ives’ “Lincoln, the Great Commoner” is a choral setting
of a poem by Edwin Markham, not printed in the booklet, presumably
for reasons of copyright. Like many of Ives’ other vocal works,
it exists also as a song, but the sheer physical impact of the
choral version is much greater. The choral part varies between
passages in unison and others in complex counterpoint. The orchestral
part is of great intricacy virtually throughout its brief duration.
The performance here carries considerable conviction, a prerequisite
for this piece. Although I have been unable to compare it with
a score the impression of both fecundity of ideas and of struggle
with them is wholly characteristic of Ives. I have returned
to this piece several times, and for me at least the set would
be worth having for it alone.
The other clear masterpiece here is Copland’s well known “Lincoln
Portrait”. However although the performance starts well, with
the orchestra playing idiomatically and exactly in the lengthy
purely orchestral opening, Barry Scott proves an unsatisfactory
speaker. Like so many who have performed this work he seems
to lack confidence in the simple eloquence of the words and
feels a need to add extra emphasis. I read from the notes that
he has appeared as a motivational speaker and in commercials
for such companies as Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonalds.
It could be therefore that he is used to trying to make much
of little content, rather than, as he should in this work, being
able simply to let the power of the words speak for themselves.
Often he ignores natural speech rhythms and emphases, making
it difficult to follow what is being said. Copland clearly does
expect a measured and oratorical style, but it should surely
be based on conveying the meaning of the text much more than
is the case here. This aspect is a disappointment, but the orchestral
performance and recording are still good enough for the performance
as a whole to be recommended as part of the collection.
The other works which appealed especially to me were Roy Harris’s
“Abraham Lincoln walks at midnight” and Ernst Bacon’s “Ford’s
Theatre”. The former is a haunting setting for mezzo-soprano
and piano trio of a poem by Vachel Lindsay, and the latter a
varied and enjoyable Suite drawn from incidental music to the
play “Death, Mr President” by Paul Horgan. Of the remainder,
Persichetti’s “A Lincoln Address” was written for President
Nixon’s 1973 inauguration but the intended first performance
was cancelled as it was felt that parts of the text, drawn from
Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address, might be taken as paralleling
the Vietnam war. Unsurprisingly this gave the work considerable
notoriety so that other orchestras competed to play it. Even
if it lacks the nobility and drive of Copland’s work it is worth
hearing once, although I suspect that I will not return to it
often. Barry Scott’s narration is more convincing here and overall
this is a convincing performance.
The remaining pieces, by Morton Gould, G.F. McKay and Paul Turok,
are of significantly lesser musical interest, although they
do help to fill out knowledge of these composers. Overall this
is an interesting and imaginatively presented collection, well
played and well recorded. It can be safely recommended to anyone
with an interest in American music, or a justifiable admiration
for the figure who inspired all of these pieces.
And a further perspective from Rob Barnett ...
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was sixteenth President of the United
States. His life and achievements have inspired many works of
literature, art and music – perhaps more than any other national
leader – at least in the twentieth century. This year (2009)
sees his bicentennial.
American composers have been drawn to writing eulogies of their
presidents. It's not something you find elsewhere except in
the one-time USSR in relation to Stalin, Lenin and others –
an interesting comparison. Kennedy and Eisenhower were each
the subject of pieces of music; Kennedy in some quantity. Roy
Harris wrote several pieces to celebrate the life, times and
beliefs of Lincoln including the work here and the Tenth Symphony
premiered by the Los Angeles Brass Society in 1965. He also
marked the death of Kennedy with his Epilogue – Profiles
in Courage: JFK.
The present collection cuts a swathe through a small proportion
of America's musical Lincolniana.
Ives’ Lincoln the Great Commoner in a grand hooley of
a piece – a real choral phantasmagoria. Choir and orchestra
heave with eruptive energy. The shrapnel of hymns and songs
of the common man are scattered around the battlefield. This
music is cut from the same gunny and silk as the wild Fourth
Barry Scott is the orator in the Copland and Persichetti works.
In each his style is modest - no calling down of Olivier's ‘fires
of heaven’. The Persichetti is sombre and noble without Copland's
italicised rhetoric. It is at times suggestive of brutality
and regret. The work is dedicated to Ormandy and the Philadelphia
who were to premiere it with Charlton Heston as orator in 1973.
However this did not proceed when Vietnam war sensitivities
led to requests for cuts and adjustments to the text. In fact
the premiere went to Walter Susskind and the St Louis Symphony
who gave it in full with William Warfield speaking the text.
With the Roy Harris piece we leave the orchestra and move to
a chamber ensemble and singer. This is a work of gentle inclines.
The sigh and rise of the string writing parallels that of the
Third and Seventh symphonies. It can be a little difficult to
hear the words which pass with a confident slow swing and a
sing-song manner. The vocal line sometimes deploys melisma.
On one occasion the piano part is protestingly angular and rhetorical.
We hear little about the composer Ernest Bacon yet he had his
Enchanted Island recorded by CRI in LP days (LOU 545-11). His
Ford’s Theatre is an approachable piece made up of many
short vignettes. They are variously: sampler-sentimental, imposing,
Whitman-like (the dying soldier), bustlingly confident in the
manner of Herrmann’s The Magnificent Ambersons, revelling
in pomp and circumstance in the Johnny comes marching home again
movement and articulating a mounting agony and tension. It is
very approachable in its raindrop evocative moments. Bacon is
worth further exploration.
The Gould is longer-winded and alternates Harris sincerity with
cheap-jack tawdry. Jaunty-gawky riverboat glitter jostles with
eerie fanfares. The piece was inspired by reading Carl Sandburg's
‘Abe Lincoln - The Prairie Years, The War Years’.
McKay is a composer last represented by a CD of his Epoch
Symphony – also on Naxos. His Tribute to a Liberator
is music threaded through with optimism and bloom. The music
allocated to the chorus is ethereal and smacks of Herbert Howell.
The epilogue is very much in the manner of a fading Delian sigh.
This five movement piece is said to have been the composer’s
celebration of democracy and protest against the European dictators
of the 1930s. It was premiered on 15 March 1940 by Fabien Sevitzky
and the Indianapolis Symphony.
The Paul Turok work dates from the early 1960s and was premiered
in by the Berkshire Symphony Orchestra. It is a lighter piece
– ingenuous and very much to the point perhaps a little in the
manner of the Moeran Sinfonietta.
The Copland contribution is the daddy of them all. It is the
most successful presidential portrait in music. It proclaims
heightened grandeur and declares that great things are afoot.
The premiere was given some six months after Pearl Harbor on
16 May 1942 with William Adams as orator. A well-turned performance
is given; not at all 'luvvy'. The orchestral contribution is
vivid and is certainly not short on nobility.
This is a stimulating anthology. I hope that we will hear more
Lincoln-inspired music in future collections including the eccentric
Harris Tenth Symphony.
Dear Mr. Mullenger,
Having read the review material in your recent article on "Abraham
Lincoln Portraits" I would differ concerning the remarks
that certain American composers are of "lesser significance"
than Aaron Copland, etc. The truth is that there is a wide range
of fine music from composers other than the preferentially treated
and more expertly recorded East Coast variety, that have received
much praise and support from Lenny and friends and finely tuned
performances by the New York Philharmonic and other top ensembles.
These subjective statements do little to enhance the listening
experience potential for thinking persons, and lead to a distortion
of American music history. One could argue that William Grant
Still's African American Symphony, recorded by the Detroit Symphony
Orchestra is really the greatest and most wonderful example
of American concert music, and that he really is the most senior
and most wonderful 20th Century American composer; but then
we must then consider that Copland has more reps of his music
for beef commercials, so it must be that he is #1.
I attended the live performance of many of the works on the
album given by L. Slatkin and the Nashville Symphony and Chorus
last summer, and the large audience enjoyed and appreciated
all the music tremendously. This album is very important in
its scope and generosity in providing a professionally recorded
exposition of composers not afforded this opportunity due to
the star system that has developed in serious music over many
decades. George Frederick McKay (my father) composed "To
A Liberator" well before Copland penned his Lincoln work,
but in the past I have heard some naïve remarks by critics
that McKay was influenced by Copland; actually he has been quoted
in conjunction with being professor of music at the University
of Washington, Seattle as being happy that Copland was receiving
recognition for advancing American culture musically. This is
somewhat typical in terms of misinformation bred by a lack of
knowledge of what really was going on in the various regions
of America musically during the 20th Century. McKay also has
other works relating to Lincoln, including one of 30 minute
length that includes orchestral scoring and very wonderful lyrics
portraying a humanistic and emotionally alive spirit, beyond
the current inventory that we have recently been privileged
to hear. His first impulse was to create works relating to his
own mellow West Coast environment and heritage, without involving
musical trends or personalities 2000 miles distant. I don't
believe it has been mentioned, by the way, that the Slatkin
recording of "To A Liberator" is a world premiere
item. This news may have been lost in a fog of redundant conventional
Frederick L. McKay
American Classics pages
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