Copland -- A Lincoln Portrait

Aaron Copland is a Communist. Shocking? Well, it certainly was to Mr. Copland. But Senator Joseph McCarthy was determined to prove this theory and ruin Copland's reputation, and possibly even his career.

The year was 1953, only a decade after Copland and many other American composers created works celebrating America and encouraging the war efforts in Europe and Asia. A patriotic fervor and Nationalism had swept through the music community, and Walter Piston, Roy Harris, William Schuman, Randall Thompson and others all contributed works to the war effort and to American Nationalism. Copland composed several major works in 1942-1944 celebrating America, among them the Fanfare for the Common Man, Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, and Lincoln Portrait.

So what was Copland's crime? Guilt by association. He made the mistake of believing there could be talks on a cultural plane with Russia as a way of establishing talks on a diplomatic plane. Secondly, Copland's good friend, the eminent Soviet conductor, Serge Koussevitsky of the Boston Symphony, asked for Copland's assistance with several cultural exchange organizations, among them the Friends for Russian Freedom, the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship, and the American-Soviet Music Society. These groups were later to become communist fronts, but only after Copland's active involvement with them had ceased.

At this time, Copland was the most prominent figure in American music, traveling throughout Europe and South America as an unofficial ambassador of American music. Ironically, Copland had difficulty renewing his passport because he was blacklisted by McCarthy.

A second, perhaps more frightening aspect to this despicable episode, was the atmosphere of artistic and intellectual censorship. This also ties Copland and Shostakovich together. Dmitri Shostakovich visited the U.S. in 1949 to address the delegates of the World Peace Conference. A photo showing Copland and Shostakovich together was published in the papers, and Life magazine published an article accusing the participants of the conference of Communist affiliations. A few years later, Copland's Lincoln Portrait was scheduled to be performed at Dwight D. Eisenhower's inaugural concert in 1952. Congressman Fred Busbey of Illinois questioned Copland's patriotic fitness to be included in this important event, and his comments were read into the Congressional Record. Seeking to avoid any conflict, Eisenhower's staff publicly pulled Copland's work from the program, stating their concerns over possible Communist affiliations. Several other performances of Copland's works were canceled around the country, and speaking engagements at several universities were canceled. While Copland was eventually vindicated, this was truly a dark and ugly time in America's history.

Lincoln Portrait is scored for large orchestra with narrator. The text is drawn from several of Lincoln's famous speeches, with commentary by Copland. Copland sought to set the text in a dignified, not glorified setting. The temptation for overstatement was the weakness of many similar pieces from this time, and Copland wanted a work that allowed the power of the words themselves to move the listener rather than overly dramatic music.


1998-99 PCO repertoire