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CD Review

Abraham Lincoln Portraits

  • Charles Ives: Lincoln, the Great Commoner 1
  • Vincent Persichetti: A Lincoln Address 2
  • Roy Harris: Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight 3
  • Ernst Bacon: Ford's Theatre – A Few Glimpses of Easter Week, 1865 4
  • Morton Gould: Lincoln Legend 5
  • George Frederick McKay: To a Liberator (A Lincoln Tribute) 6
  • Paul Turok: Variations on an American Song – Aspects of Lincoln and Liberty 7
  • Aaron Copland: Lincoln Portrait 8
2,8 Barry Scott, narrator
3 Sharon Mabry, mezzo
3 Mary Kathryn van Osdale, violin
3 Anthony La Marchina, cello
3 Roger Wiesmeyer, piano
1 Nashville Symphony Chorus
1,2,4-8 Nashville Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
Naxos 8.559373-74 2CDs 112:37
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Lincoln's myth in music.

Americans have a hard time not thinking about Abraham Lincoln. No other American President comes close to him in his combination of political skill, intellect, poetic expression, and depth. He is the nearest figure we have to a political secular saint – simultaneously epic and tragic. Someone once said, "God protects fools and the United States of America." Lincoln argues for the truth of that saying, especially when you consider American fools. For historians, Lincoln far and away leads any other American figure as a subject for study. Poets, playwrights, and fiction writers have had less success, Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" and Vidal's Lincoln two notable exceptions. The liner notes on this CD point out over 90 musical works on Lincoln, many of which I've heard and most of which not worth the cost of musical type. Slatkin, for the most part, has chosen well. I wish he could have included both the Hindemith and the Sessions settings of "When Lilacs," but that's not practical. Besides, the Hindemith has already had a number of recordings. Slatkin has also chosen mainly pieces that haven't been heard in a while, and it's always fun to discover something new and interesting.

Charles Ives, although regarded as a Modern, in many ways remained a child of the 19th century in his habits of thought. Too young to have fought in the Civil War himself, he nevertheless knew very well many men who did. Ives thought of himself as an heir of New England Transcendentalism. He conceived of music as "philosophy carried out by other means." Leonard Bernstein called him "our Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson of music," and he should have added Whitman as well. The Civil War looms large in Ives's musical landscape. Lincoln, the Great Commoner began as a song for voice and piano. Ives later rewrote it for chorus and orchestra. A setting of excerpts from a poem by Edwin Markham ("Lincoln, Man of the People"), the work takes a quintessential 19th-century view of Lincoln (also seen in Whitman's "O Captain, My Captain") – Lincoln the heroic workman, flung into the midst of disaster and striving mightily to save the house of state. The themes of stern conscience and the hard way of the spirit come to the fore. Ives puts us in the middle of the storm of war and almost never lets up. His quotation technique allows him to underline certain parts of the poem, particularly the use of "America" ("My country, 'tis of thee") which occurs at points that emphasize duty and steadfastness. The piece is essentially a deliberate march, and Ives gives us "Battle Cry of Freedom," actual military bugle calls (I don't know which ones), his favored "Columbia the Gem of the Ocean," and at the end, in a brief vision of peace, "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Persichetti's Lincoln Address was commissioned for Richard Nixon's second inauguration. Persichetti chose Lincoln's second inaugural address for his text, perhaps Lincoln's single best piece of writing. It talks about the scourge of war and of the need to "bind up the nation's wounds." Apparently, the words of the greatest Republican President embarrassed the Nixon administration, at the time embroiled in Viet Nam. I say "administration," because I doubt that Nixon himself had any interest in the commission at all, except as something he would have had to sit through. Persichetti was told to excise certain passages. He agreed to some and refused others. Ten days before the event, the Inaugural Committee withdrew the commission. A front-page story in the New York Times raised the work's profile by raising a stink, and orchestras around the country gave more performances of the score than would have occurred had the Inaugural Committee not acted so stupidly.

Persichetti wrote the work in less than three weeks, and it's one of his best. Like Copland's Lincoln Portrait, it uses speaker and orchestra, and I think even more effectively than the Copland. Part of its success lies in its reliance on pure instrumental music as well as on melodrama. It's not just accompaniment to a reading. The music has its own strength. Persichetti makes extensive use of the melody of one of his Hymns and Responsories, a beautiful setting of E. E. Cummings's "purest of purest pure." The score transcends its immediate circumstances, although I haven't heard of performances since the Seventies or even of a recording before this one. This would make an excellent change from the Copland, especially in the present political climate.

Roy Harris is another mighty name that programmers and critics have largely forgotten, and damned if I know why. Of course, he wrote some weak pieces, but so did Beethoven. Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight sets the Vachel Lindsay poem for mezzo and piano trio. I think it one of Harris's considerable bests. Lindsay wrote the poem in 1914, mainly as a pacifist statement. The score resembles more a chamber cantata than a Lied or a scena. I'd compare it to Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915. The Barber has genius melodies, but the Harris is more tightly organized. It employs, at least in part, Harris's "autogenesis" technique, where the music seems to blossom from a tiny seed. The piece runs about 14 minutes, but Harris creates a musical argument that takes a listener along with him. Even without a memorable tune, it remains a powerful, memorable work – a remarkable feat of composition.

Ernst Bacon – part of an impressive Chicago intellectual scene early in the 20th century – was a polymath, adept in mathematics and painting as well as music. His art songs and Ford's Theater have had the strongest grip on the repertoire. Bacon began Ford's Theater as incidental music for a play about Lincoln by historian and novelist Paul Horgan. The play flopped, and Bacon rescued the music as a suite. The music occasionally throws something interesting to the surface. At other times, it promises more than it delivers, as in the movement titled "Telegraph Fugue," which makes you anticipate something wonderful, but which walks a fairly dull path. All the electricity remains in the title. For the most part, the suite doesn't escape its original circumstance. I found myself wondering how well the music went with the play.

Gould's Lincoln Legend comes from 1941. Toscanini premièred the score. Forties American music, especially during the war, largely ran to Americana, with Copland, Thomson, Harris, Gould, Carter, Schuman, Moross, Bernstein, and many others. Copland's idiom provided the model for most, but the above composers created their own Americana brands. Gould's included jazz and 19th-century vernacular music. Lincoln Legend is, ultimately, a brilliant flop. It runs to four major sections: an evocation of the Illinois prairie, a "war" passage, an extended funeral march, and a concluding hymn. Gould bases his first section on "The Old Gray Mare," also known as "Old Abe Lincoln Came Out of the Wilderness," one of Lincoln's campaign songs, and on "Hoosen Johnny." This isn't a matter of direct quotation or arrangement. Gould weaves fragments of the tunes into a symphonic argument, with stunning, effortless counterpoint. The brief "war" section launches into "Battle Hymn of the Republic," which slows down for the dirge. The lament should bear the emotional weight of the piece. It doesn't, mainly, I believe, because Gould at this point resorts to a mere arrangement of the tune. Heretofore, the work has dazzlingly explored the structural relationships of all the tunes, how one morphs into another or how a phrase belongs to more than one melody. The funeral march leads to a hymn. Instead of a vision of heaven, however, Gould ends ambiguously, even disturbingly – trouble suggested by very simple means. Lincoln Legend should have been better, given the amount of craft and poetry in it, but even if not from Gould's top drawer, it's by no means shabby.

George Frederick McKay enjoyed an enviable reputation as a teacher, mainly on the West Coast. His pupils include John Cage and William Bolcom. His work is just coming back into notice, mainly due to CDs recently issued by Naxos. I've heard some of the previous ones, but the music, although well-crafted, hasn't stuck with me. To a Liberator, however, made me take notice. A strong, handsome work in five continuous movements – "Evocation," "Choral Scene," "March," "Declaration," and "Epilogue" – it surprised me by its appropriation of certain tropes by Ernest Bloch, a big influence on West Coast composers of the time. "Evocation" broods a bit like Schelomo. In "Choral Scene," a wordless choir consoles. "March" brings the Civil War to mind, and rhythmically seems based on "The Battle Cry of Freedom," but it also resembles Bloch's marches, typified by the first movement of the Concerto Symphonique. "Declaration" is less a movement than a transition from the march's climax to the winding-down of "Epilogue," a return to the material and brooding of the "Evocation." This work succeeds without any need to refer to Lincoln. It's made me want to go back and listen to those other McKay CDs once more.

Paul Turok is probably better known as a music reviewer (formerly of the New York Times, now of Turok's Review) than as a composer, but he has indeed produced some fine music. The occasional commission comes his way, but not as many as he deserves. His variations take the Lincoln campaign song "Lincoln and Liberty" (also known as "Acres of Clams") for a stroll through ten poetic and ingenious variations. The tune itself is pentatonic (in the key of C, it contains only the notes C D E G A), and Turok confines his variations to the diatonic scale (all the white notes of the piano). Nevertheless, he manages to throw in some tasty dissonance and even to modulate, at least in the sense of switching modes within the key. This work isn't emotionally profound, but it sure as blazes entertains at a very high level. Not only does Turok produce gem after gem of variation, he satisfyingly shapes the whole, so that interest continually rises. The first few variations stick closely to the melody, which gives the listener a chance to absorb it. At variation 4, Turok takes off and has fun. He fragments the theme, in a Coplandesque way (think the opening to Appalachian Spring), and comes up with a new version, taken up in variation 5. Variation 6, a hymn, provides a bit of a breather, while variation 7 puts the original theme into a round. The final variations turn up the excitement, with the last somehow managing to be in triple and duple times simultaneously, without resorting to triplets or hemiola. I love this score. I wish companies would record more of his stuff.

The best-known piece, Copland's Lincoln Portrait for speaker and orchestra, concludes the program. Like Fanfare for the Common Man, it belonged to a series of commissions of various composers by André Kostelanetz, including Jerome Kern and Virgil Thomson. Copland's is not merely the only score that has so far survived, but it became one of his hits. Actors and politicians from Charlton Heston to James Earl Jones to Henry Fonda (Copland's favorite) have recorded it. I can't call it a total success, despite some magnificent music. The speaker – indeed, the melodrama genre – bothers me. If the music is good, I don't want the speaker covering it up. If the music is no good, why is it in the piece? Of course, I can find exceptions, usually when the composer treats the speaker as another instrument, as Walton does in Façade. Copland had a problem. He wanted to include Lincoln's words in the piece but had not found a successful way to set them musically. Virgil Thomson advised him to jettison the words altogether – too aesthetically dangerous. Copland then decided on the speaker, I think to the score's cost. The Portrait has three sections. The first depicts the grandeur of both the prairie and of Lincoln emerging from it. The second, an odd scherzo with a refrain from Foster's "Camptown Races," gives us the zip of the American 19th century leading to the Civil War. Both parts represent top-notch Copland. The finale, intended as the emotional peak, tends to bluster. The connecting text which links passages from Lincoln is the pseudo-Biblical, Populist pap so prevalent in the Thirties and Forties. Much depends on the speaker. My favorite, Carl Sandburg, practically crooned the text in a virtuoso reading that combined Midwestern twang with a Swedish lilt. Copland hated his performance, but Sandburg took the curse off the nonsense he had to utter by treating it as music and consequently got inside a listener. James Earl Jones, in a very different way, does the same thing. Henry Fonda for me is simply too flat, too removed, leaving the listener vulnerable to the pretention of the sermon.

The Nashville Symphony continues to agreeably surprise me. Slatkin has improved them to the point where they have reached at least the second tier of American Orchestras. They stand very near the head of that line. Although they better every other recording of Ford's Theater, the real dud on the program and unfortunately the longest piece, not even they can save Ernst Bacon's musical bacon. The orchestra in the Ives manages the composer's characteristically thick textures, but you really do need the text in front of you to understand the chorus. You can't blame them, because Ives doesn't give them much of a chance. The Persichetti receives perhaps its first recording, and the account's a solid one. Speaker Barry Scott has a basso that sounds like the old man of the mountains. The Gould gets its fair chance, and thus its strengths and weaknesses stand exposed. Since I have nothing to which to compare the McKay, I can say only that the performance moved me. The Turok and the Copland come off as Slatkin's and the orchestra's best. I imprinted on the Kostelanetz-Sandburg recording (still available on Sony 85238; see my review of another Sony incarnation, SM2K89326). I still think Sandburg the best narrator, the one who best understands how poetry works (the thrill he can send up your spinal column on the word "disenthrall" continues to amaze me). However, Barry Scott makes some nice vocal music himself, closer to James Earl Jones's reading. However, Slatkin leaves Kostelanetz in the dust. He beautifully shapes the opening in one long arc and avoids over-inflation in the finale. Compared to him, Kostelanetz stutters and nudges you in the ribs. Overall, I consider Slatkin's account, along with Kostelanetz's, one of the two best. If only Sandburg could have recorded with Slatkin.

A special word about Sharon Mabry and the trio in Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight. The performers do a fine, although not life-altering job I think possible with the Harris. Nevertheless, this is one complicated work, and it demands laser-like concentration and the ability to know where you are at any point in the work. Otherwise, the cantata can come off as a musical blob. The performers understand the piece and bring the listener with them.

Kudos to Slatkin for the inventive programming and to Naxos for once again taking a chance on relatively unknown repertoire.

Copyright © 2011, Steve Schwartz.