Letters from Lincoln for baritone and orchestra | Michael Daugherty, composer

Letters from Lincoln
for baritone and orchestra (2009)

I. Lincoln’s Funeral Train (April 15-May 4, 1865, Washington, D.C.-Springfield, Illinois)
II. Autobiography (December 20, 1859, Springfield, Illinois)
III. Abraham Lincoln is My Name (1824-26, Indiana)
IV. Mystic Chords of Memory (March 4, 1861, Washington, D.C.)
V. Letter to Mrs. Bixby (November 21, 1864, Washington, D.C.)
VI. Mrs. Lincoln’s Music Box (June 9, 1863, Washington, D.C.)
VII. Gettysburg Address (November 19, 1863, Pennsylvania)

Instrumentation: Baritone; 2 flutes (piccolo), oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, contrabassoon; 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones; timpani, 2 percussion; harp; strings

Publisher: Boosey and Hawkes, Hendon Music (BMI)

Duration: 25 minutes

World Premiere: February 28, 2009 / The Fox, Spokane, Washington State / Thomas Hampson, baritone / Spokane Symphony Orchestra / Eckart Preu

Program Note:

Historians and the public generally regard Lincoln as America’s greatest president who successfully led the United States through the Civil War and initiated the end of slavery. His life, which was full of spectacular opposites, ironies, contradictions and pathos, provided me with abundance of musical dramatic possibilities.

Born in 1809 in a one-room log cabin in rural Kentucky to uneducated, poor farmers, Lincoln was able teach himself how to read, write and do arithmetic by reading Shakespeare, poetry, newspapers and books on philosophy and mathematics. He also taught himself how to play the violin and harmonica, became a champion wrestler and was handy with an axe. That he eventually became President of the United States from such humble beginnings has baffled biographers ever since.

As a young man in Illinois, he practiced law by driving a horse and buggy across the Midwest prairie from town to town where he earned the nickname “Honest Abe.” There he became a successful lawyer and politician who could dazzle a crowd with his witty comments, humorous stories and theatrical way of delivering a speech. At the same time, Lincoln was a loner who could sit for hours at time in deep thought, “wrapped in abstraction and gloom.” If he went to a concert, lecture or minstrel show, “he would just as soon go alone.” Although Lincoln was a spiritual man who often quoted the Bible and frequently made use of biblical images in his writings, he never joined a church.

As a young man in New Salem, Illinois, he fell in love with Anne Rutledge and never recovered from her untimely death at the age of 22. In 1842, Lincoln reluctantly married the high strung and temperamental Mary Todd (1818-1882); a decision, which haunted him the rest of his life.

After only a two-year term as congressman from Illinois in the United States House of Representatives, the widely unknown and untested Lincoln was elected the 16th President of the United States at a time when the country was at the brink of Civil War (1860-1865). With little military experience, Lincoln became the Commander-in-Chief of the Union army in this “bloody war.” He did not hesitate to use violent force when necessary, and micromanaged the battle strategies of his generals and their battles. Yet Lincoln was a peaceful man who believed in solving conflict with “peaceful ballots” and not “bloody bullets”: he never fired a shot as a young man in the Blackhawk Indian War, and he was against the hunting of animals with firearms.

After being re-elected to a second term as President and only days after General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Confederate army to General Ulysses S. Grant, Lincoln, who was eager to begin the peaceful reunification of a war torn country, was assassinated on April 15, 1865.

While composing this musical work inspired by Lincoln, I discovered ways to bring his historic greatness into the present. I read Lincoln’s speeches, poems and letters and studied his life; I visited the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., and I traveled to the battlefields of Gettysburg; during this time I also became involved in the 2008 presidential campaign of Barack Obama.

Lincoln’s impassioned writings, from his youth as poor boy in the backwoods of Kentucky to his tragic death as President of the United States, have moved me to take his own words, both public and private, and set them to song. In Letters from Lincoln, I create a musical portrait of a man 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.

–Michael Daugherty

Gramophone Review/August 2010
Letters from Lincoln

Daugherty Letters from Lincoln
Webern (arr Schwarz) Langsamer Satz. Im Sommerwind
Thomas Hampson / Spokane Symphony / Eckart Preu

E1 F E1E-CD-7725 (51’ • DDD)

Lincoln comes to life in Michael Daugherty’s perfectly pitched new work

The principal reason why most Fourth of July concerts appear irretrievably centered on Sousa marches and that timeless classic of Americana, the 1812 Overture, is because the majority of nationally flavoured compositions are not very good. The music too often hovers between uneasy gravity and majestic grandiosity and, even when the patriotism is skillfully tempered, as in Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, the results are dramatically stiff and uncompelling.

All the more reason then to celebrate Michael Daugherty’s Letters from Lincoln. The song cycle was premiered by Thomas Hampson and the Spokane Symphony in February, 2009, and is here revealed not only as one of Daugherty’s best works but as one of the finest historically inspired works to come from any American composer in years.

That’s all the more surprising considering that Daugherty has more often mockingly (but affectionately) mined pop-culture iconography as with his Jackie O, the Superman-inspired Metropolis Symphony and Dead Elvis, a bassoon concerto in which the soloist is required to dress up like Elvis (late Vegas, not early Memphis).

Letters from Lincoln avoids the stodgy and didactic – largely because the 16th president was such a wonderful communicator, and with Daugherty’s texts taken entirely from Lincoln’s own words and writings, the Great Emancipator’s humour, eloquence, historical insight and fatalism come through magnificently.

Daugherty’s cycle manages to pack quite a bit of music and a lot of Lincoln into less than 30 minutes. It begins with a brief orchestral prelude, depicting the president’s Funeral Train, starting with a dirge-like chord and an elegiac trumpet. Lincoln’s brief self-description in “Autobiography” segues into the witty, self-effacing “Abraham Lincoln Is My Name” with its jaunty fiddle tune, the text sung with apt self-mocking swagger by Hampson. After “Mystic Chords of Memory”, which starkly reflects Lincoln’s hatred of war, come the two sections that are the heart of the cycle.

In the “Letter to Mrs. Bixby”, Lincoln’s honest heartfelt words of condolence and empathy for a mother whose five sons were killed in the war, makes an intensely moving song of empathy and condolence, nicely set off by an obbligato viola. Following a brief note of foreshadowing about son Tad’s pistol, comes the final section, the “Gettysburg Address”, which has to be one of the most graceful and natural musical settings of any famous political document, with its contrasting malign middle section, and artful interpolation of “Dixie”.

Letters from Lincoln is among Daugherty’s finest works, majestic yet skirting preachiness and deftly communicating the slain president’s humour, sadness and eloquence. Hampson is without peer in this American-flavoured repertoire and strikes an easy balance of vocal strength, expressive phrasing and rustic charm while avoiding pomposity. The Spokane Symphony plays very well indeed for music director Eckart Preu.

Early orchestral music of Anton Webern seems an odd coupling but actually works quite well with the gentle lyricism of Langsamer Satz and the darker, more brooding chromaticism of Im Sommerwind complementing the Daugherty work and here given evocative, atmospheric performances by Preu and the orchestra.

Short measure at 51 minutes, but Daugherty’s moving, masterful cycle deserves the widest circulation and offers a fine vehicle for baritones as well. Don’t be surprised if Letters from Lincoln quickly works its way into standard repertoire on Fourth of July concert programmes.

-Lawrence A. Johnson