Mention music and American politics in the same breath and many people’s thoughts will immediately spring to anti-war songs. The passing late last month of Pete Seeger aged 94 is a reminder of his contribution to this powerfully simple milieu of folk music spiced with concepts of social change.
Playing a less emotionally charged role, it’s likely that music has come to the rescue of many an embattled politician at times of political stress, providing a brief backwater for reflection. Condoleezza Rice, the former US Secretary of State, initially trained as a musician; her keyboard skills are documented on YouTube, including her performance of part of the Brahms Piano Quintet (her favourite composer) before Britain’s Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace in 2008. Bill Clinton, the 42nd President of the United States, can similarly be recalled playing the blues on tenor saxophone at the 40th anniversary of the Newport Jazz Festival in 1993.
Further back in history, Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States, developed the glass harmonica (or ‘armonica’ as it was referred to then), basically re-jigging free-standing wine glasses into a new horizontal configuration on a spindle, operated by a foot treadle (8.555295). It made its debut performance in 1762 and subsequently caught the ear of George Washington, the first President of the United States (who attended a concert featuring the instrument) and Thomas Jefferson, the third President, who described it as “the greatest gift offered to the musical world of this century”.
But of all the country’s presidents, the one who has been etched most onto the legacy of classical music is Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States, whose birthday on February 12, 1809 we mark with a quick survey of how his name, deeds and words continue to make their mark in music. His contribution to the emancipation of America’s slaves and the eloquence with which he defended democratic principles still resonate today. The release of the Negro slaves’ untapped musical reservoirs into society ultimately led to a whole new musical genre, jazz, along with the countless subsets it has subsequently spawned, all from the humble foundation of Negro spirituals.
The contemporary American composer Adolphus Hailstork exemplifies how slavery’s aftershocks continue, not least in his Symphony No. 2 (8.559295), which was inspired by a visit he made to Africa in the summer of 1996 and premièred three years later.
“There I visited the forts along the coast of Ghana and saw the dungeons where the slaves were held before being shipped overseas,” he says. “I put my reaction to that sad scene in movement two of this symphony. In movement four I sought to reflect the determination of a people who had arrived in America as slaves, but struggled, with courage and faith, against numerous odds.”
The Barcelona-born and Juilliard-trained composer Leonardo Balada subtitled his Cello Concerto No. 2 ‘New Orleans’ (8.557049). Written in 2001, it’s a skilful blend of Negro spirituals and jazz elements with avant-garde techniques. In addition to such musical seeds that were sown following the abolition of slavery, the force of Abraham Lincoln’s personal qualities and the powerful literary inspiration of his immortal words also continue to breathe long after his death in 1865.
It’s interesting to note that among the works chosen to be performed at the dedication of the new auditorium in New York’s Juilliard School in 1931 was Robert Russell Bennett‘s “Abraham Lincoln: A Likeness in Symphonic Form” (8.559004). The four movements offer a testament to the make-up of his character: I His Simplicity and His Sadness. II His Affection and His Faith. III His Humor and His Weakness. IV His Greatness and His Sacrifice.
A more substantial birthday tribute to Lincoln than this brief blog occurred in 2009 to mark the bicentennial of his birth. The Nashville Symphony, conductor Leonard Slatkin and Naxos selected eight important works by leading American composers to feature on a 2-CD set (8.559373-74), some setting Lincoln’s own historic words, some the words of poets inspired by him, while others were based on Lincoln’s life and ideals. Included are Aaron Copland‘s Lincoln Portrait, Morton Gould‘s Lincoln Legend and Charles Ives’ Lincoln, the Great Commoner.
Finally, a mention of Mount Rushmore (8.559749), written in 2010 by Michael Daugherty and taking as its inspiration the monumental sculpture of four American Presidents in the South Dakota Hills. Since it features Lincoln in its last movement, let’s allow the composer to have the last word on this week’s subject:
“The fourth and final movement of Mount Rushmore is dedicated to Abraham Lincoln, who successfully reconciled a divided United States and initiated the end of slavery. I have set the rhythmic cadences and powerful words of his “Gettysburg Address” (1863) to music that resonates with echoes of period music from the Civil War. I create a musical portrait of the 16th President of the United States, who expressed his vision with eloquence, and with hope that the human spirit could overcome prejudice and differences of opinion in order to create a better world.”