When commissioned by conductor André Kostelanetz during World War II to compose a portrait of an eminent American, to express the "magnificent spirit of our country," Aaron Copland selected Abraham Lincoln as his subject. Although the choice may seem to us virtually inevitable, the fact is his first selection had been Walt Whitman. It was when Kostelanetz persuaded him that a political figure of world stature would be better suited to the patriotic purpose that Copland settled upon Lincoln.
In 1942, the year of Lincoln Portrait, Copland had already turned the corner from his path of neoclassical abstraction onto what became a highway of Americana, filled with works in which folk materials were freely used and adapted. By no means content only to appropriate traditional tunes, Copland blended them with a full complement of original music that marvelously counterfeited the genuine article, and the combined ingredients came out of his American cuisinart mixed with the extremely palatable spices of jaunty, irregular rhythms, spiky dissonances, as well as simple triadic harmonies, intimate and/or grand orchestral textures - and gallons of spirit.
Of Copland's compositions in the American syle that have endeared themselves to a large public, Lincoln Portrait may be the one that has touched most deeply the American consciousness. The work was premiered by Kostelanetz and the Cincinnati Symphony on May 14, 1942, and a radio broadcast with Carl Sandburg as narrator came shortly thereafter.
The following note was written by Copland for the first Boston Symphony performance in 1943:
"The first sketches were made in February, and the portrait finished on 16 April 1942. I worked with musical materials of my own with the exception of two songs of the period: the famous '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…,' and a ballad that was first published in 1840 under the title 'The Pesky Sarpent,' but it is better known today as 'Springfield Mountain.' In neither case is the treatment a literal one. The tunes are used freely in the manner of my use of cowboy songs in Billy the Kid.
"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 gentleness and simplicity of spirit. The quick middle section briefly sketches in the background of the times he lived. This merges into the concluding section where my sole purpose was to draw a simple but impressive frame about the words of Lincoln himself."
- Orrin Howard, who served the Association as Director of Publications and Archives for many years, continues to contribute to the Philharmonic program book.