ABRAHAM LINCOLN PORTRAITS: Works by IVES, PERSICHETTI, HARRIS, BACON, GOULD, McKAY, TUROK, and COPLAND.

by Walter Simmons



ABRAHAM LINCOLN PORTRAITS • Leonard Slatkin, cond; Nashville SO; Nashville S Ch; Barry Scott (nar); Sharon Mabry (mez); Mary Kathryn Van Osdale (vn); Anthony LaMarchina (vc); Roger Wiesmeyer (pn)

IVES Lincoln, the Great Commoner. PERSICHETTI A Lincoln AddressHARRISAbraham Lincoln Walks at MidnightBACON Ford’s Theatre. GOULD Lincoln Legend. McKAY To a Liberator. TUROK Variations on an American Song. COPLAND A Lincoln Portrait • NAXOS 8.559373-74 (2CDs: 112:37)

According to the program notes, the eight works on this two-CD set were selected from some 90 compositions written in commemoration of Abraham Lincoln. Presumably these were the ones that offered the most musical interest, but I remain curious about the others—partly because I found most of these eight to be somewhat disappointing. Each attempts to balance patriotic concerns with musical ones, with varying degrees of success.

The longest piece of music is Ernst Bacon’s Ford’s Theatre, a 30-minute suite of twelve short pieces originally conceived as incidental music to a play by Paul Horgan, called, Death, Mr. President. Evidently the play was not a success. Each of the pieces is suggested by an incident that took place during the week preceding Lincoln’s assassination. Ernst Bacon (1898-1970) was not only a composer, but also a conductor, a painter, and a collector of folksongs. Other compositions of his have left me with the impression that his work warrants more attention than it receives these days. However, this suite, composed during the 1940s, does not make a convincing case for that contention. One movement, entitled “The River Queen,” has some lovely moments; and the music is pleasant enough on the whole, but it offers little of compelling interest. 

This is the problem with several of the selections: pleasant enough, but not really compelling as music. George Frederick McKay (1899-1970) was the Eastman School’s first composition graduate (in 1923, before Howard Hanson’s arrival there), and spent 40 years on the faculty of the University of Washington. To a Liberator was composed in 1940, and uses Lincoln as a symbol of democracy during the period of aggressive fascism in Europe. His piece purports to be an expression of his personal feelings while contemplating Lincoln. It is pleasant, euphonious music, but leaves little lasting impression. Similarly, Variations on an American Song by composer-critic Paul Turok (b. 1929), focuses on a simple ditty, “Lincoln and Liberty,” based originally on an Irish tune. His variations, which utilize only the notes that appear in the original song, are very artfully elaborated, but do not compel interest.

I am one of those who feels that the importance of Charles Ives has been greatly overstated by those commentators who assert that he successfully fills the role of “America’s first truly original composer.” Yes, that would make for a nice, orderly account of American musical history—except that after many decades of listening I remain unconvinced of the outstanding merit of Ives’s music. Lincoln, the Great Commoner, touted by Henry Cowell as “one of the most unusual and exciting works in choral literature,” is to my ears just another congested potpourri of American song fragments.

A little more interesting than the Bacon, McKay, and Turok is Morton Gould’s Lincoln Legend. Gould (1913-1996) was a very active figure in American musical life from the late 1930s up through the 1950s, when his name was a household word, although his reputation was based largely on his work in the area of commercial/popular music and “light classics.” But he also wrote symphonies and other more ambitious works, which were performed in some of the most auspicious venues. For example, the 1942 premiere of Lincoln Legend was conducted by Toscanini. Gould displayed an extraordinary technical sophistication that was not matched by expressive content of comparable depth. An unabashed musical nationalist, he admitted freely that virtually all his music, regardless of its aspirations as “serious” work, drew upon vernacular musical material. In his more ambitious efforts he would typically subject this material to complex developmental procedures that often seemed disproportionately overwrought, relative to the composition’s actual aesthetic, emotional, and psychological weight. Lincoln Legend is a 17-minute “symphonic poem” in several sections of contrasting moods and dynamics. Through it are interwoven various American songs, most notably “The Old Grey Mare” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” As clever as its workmanship may be, the ultimate impact is vacuous. In a sense Gould was a slick, less pretentious variant of Ives, although this comparison will probably infuriate proponents of both composers. Maybe it’s a weakness on my part, but hearing “The Old Grey Mare” treated symphonically does not get my pulse racing.

Roy Harris’s reputation has plummeted dramatically since the days when he was touted as one of America’s “greats”—a fall from grace quite justified by the overall quality of his work. As is well known, Harris attempted to fabricate and exploit a personal connection to Lincoln, claiming to have been born in a log cabin on February 12, in Lincoln County, Oklahoma. However, his 1953 setting of Vachel Lindsay’s Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight, scored for mezzo-soprano and piano trio, manages to avoid many of his most annoying mannerisms, and is actually one of the more interesting pieces on this program, with some arresting moments. But it is no masterpiece, lacking any sense of dramatic contour; it just seems to keep going until it stops, which is, of course, the problem with his symphonic works. This weakness is not overcome by mezzo-soprano Sharon Mabry, who, despite a lovely voice and excellent intonation, delivers the music in a monotonous fashion, which only accentuates the monotony of the music.

The story behind Vincent Persichetti’s A Lincoln Address is, I’m afraid, more interesting than the piece itself, resulting in a front page story in the New York Times. For those readers not old enough to remember, here is the story in a nutshell: In late 1971, in preparation for the activities surrounding Richard Nixon’s second inauguration as president, Persichetti had been selected by the inaugural committee to write a work for the occasion, to be performed at the Kennedy Center by the Philadelphia Orchestra. It was to be a work with spoken text, and Persichetti was asked to include excerpts from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Persichetti agreed and set to work, although he was given little time to produce the composition. However, what with the controversial war in Vietnam still raging, along with intense anti-war protests, the committee began to have second thoughts about Lincoln’s address, which included comments about “the scourge of war,” which, they felt, might embarrass Nixon under the current circumstances. So they began to request deletions from the text. At first Persichetti—a gentle, conciliatory fellow—went along with these requests, at which point he had only three weeks to complete the work. Working quickly, he finished the piece by the deadline. But now more deletions were requested. At this point Persichetti refused. So the inaugural committee took the piece off the program. This was front-page news: The work’s non-performance drew more attention to the composer than any performance of his music ever had. And, of course, the piece was promptly played by orchestras all over the country. However, given the time pressure under which he was working, what Persichetti had done was to take portions of his Symphony No. 7, “Liturgical,” and insert the Lincoln excerpts at appropriate points. Music being highly susceptible to the power of suggestion, the result fit the text just fine. But the music—here as in its original symphonic context—is rather cold and impersonal; it is not Persichetti at his best. However, the performance offered here is extremely flattering to the work. Barry Scott offers a fine reading of Lincoln’s words; and Leonard Slatkin, one of today’s most sympathetic and effective advocates for the “American symphonic school,” leads a sensitive performance that makes one long for him to take on the Symphony No. 7 itself. He might be just the conductor to bring this work to life.

And this brings us to the one well-known work on the program: Aaron Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait. Longtime Fanfare readers may be aware that my reactions often go against the grain of received opinion. However, there is no getting around the fact that Copland’s work simply dwarfs everything else offered on these two CDs. Many people have an aversion to works with narrators, and I count myself among them. But there are exceptions, and A Lincoln Portrait is one of them. By now I have heard this work at least a hundred times, and it still moves me deeply—the text, the music, the whole thing. Like the Gould work, this piece too weaves American folk tunes into the symphonic fabric. But it works because Copland does not twist them out of their natural settings; the context in which he places them is in keeping with their characters. Again Barry Scott provides an excellent rendition of the text, and Slatkin leads one of the most well-shaped performances of the work I have ever heard. He and the Nashville Symphony are excellent throughout these recordings, but this is most noticeable to me in the two works I know best. I am not privy to the machinations behind the scenes concerning Slatkin, the Nashville Symphony, and Naxos, but while the other record companies ignore the American symphonic repertoire, Naxos is bringing this music much-deserved attention. Like Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony, Slatkin and Nashville are a winning combination.