Presidents’ Day: A Lincoln Portrait

February 20, 2017 at 3:44 pm

Last year I wrote a jollier post for Presidents’ Day, likening the political battlefield to a gladiators’ arena. This year, I’m feeling the need for something a little deeper than a Sousa march, though. Aaron Copland‘s Lincoln Portrait should do the trick.

The 1942 work is one of Copland’s Americana compositions, like Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, or Rodeo. But unlike those ballets, the Lincoln Portrait is similar to a tone poem, but accompanied by spoken text from Abraham Lincoln’s speeches. And not surprisingly, the combination of Copland’s music and Lincoln’s words are powerful (and with James Earl Jones as the narrator, like in this video, how can you go wrong?)

Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility. The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country. It is the eternal struggle between two principles, right and wrong, throughout the world. It is the same spirit that says ‘you toil and work and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.’ No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation, and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle. As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy. That from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion. That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. That this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.

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On Joy, Freedom, and Walls (An die Freude, Freiheit, und Waende)

January 29, 2017 at 3:46 pm

On Christmas Day, 1989, Leonard Bernstein conducted a concert in Berlin – on the program was Ludwig van Beethoven‘s Ninth Symphony. Germany was celebrating its reunification – the Berlin Wall had been torn down only a month earlier. The text of the “Ode to Joy” was altered – “Freude” (joy) was replaced with “Freiheit” (freedom). Some scholars argue that the original text indeed used the word “Freiheit”, and that the poet changed it out of fear of persecution.

Beethoven’s 9th symphony is a marvel. It is a symbol of the strength of the human spirit in the face of evil, always looking towards beauty, always dreaming of a better world. It’s no surprise that it is the Anthem of the European Union. It’s a symbol of the hope for human unity:

[Joy’s / Freedom’s] magic brings together what old traditions has unjustly divided. All men shall be as brothers where your gentle wings hover. Be embraced, you millions; this kiss is for the whole world!

Thirty years after the Berlin Wall was torn down and Germany was celebrating its unity, we Americans are building a new wall and actively dividing ourselves from our fellow humans. It is disgusting. We must do whatever we can to stop this. I am not a warrior, I am a musician; I cannot fight with weapons, so I will fight with Beethoven.

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March of the (Nasty) Women

January 21, 2017 at 12:48 pm

As I write this, hundreds of thousands of people are filling the streets of major US cities for the Women’s March on Washington, to protest the Great Farce which began yesterday. It was only a century ago that women in the US were fighting for the right to vote; just like today, protest songs were written and sung.

Ethel Smyth was a Nasty Woman. She was a lesbian who not only wanted to be a composer, but also to vote. Born in England in 1858, her envisioned life was not one to be easily won. She had to keep her homosexuality hidden, and her career in music was suppressed by sexism; her father strongly discouraged her from pursuing music, and Smyth had to forge her own way. She became very involved in the Women’s Suffrage movement, and ultimately did see English women win the right to vote when she turned 70.

Progress is slow, but it can happen, thanks to Nasty Women like Smyth. Here is her “March of the Women“, written in 1910.

While this piece is fitting for this post, I’d recommend digging a little deeper and listening to some of Smyth’s other compositions, which better show her compositional personality. You can start here.

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