Aaron Copland: Lincoln Portrait
The ultimate homage to whom many consider the greatest US president, Lincoln Portrait was written by Aaron Copland after an invitation by conductor Andre Kostelanetz to write a piece honouring an ‘eminent American’. Scored for orchestra and narrator (including, among others, Henry Fonda, Neil Armstrong, Tom Hanks and Charlton Heston), the text includes extracts from Lincoln’s ‘Gettysburg Address’, Lincoln’s poignant speech to mark the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, site of one of the bloodiest battles in the American civil war.
As with many of his works, Copland weaves American folk tunes into Lincoln Portrait including, here, Camptown Races and Springfield Mountain. Copland’s ‘American’ style has influenced all American composers since, from Bernstein to John Williams.
John Philip Sousa: Stars and Stripes Forever
Adopted by official decree as the national march of the United States, Stars and Stripes Forever was one of over 130 marches Sousa wrote for military band.
Supposedly written on Christmas aboard an ocean liner, the catchy march has been arranged many times since, including for organ and piano – Russian-born pianist Vladimir Horowitz celebrated becoming an American citizen with a particularly eye-popping transcription that’s worth seeing, let along hearing… Arcadi Volodos is on blistering form here.
Charles Ives: Holiday Symphony
Movement titles don’t get much more patriotic than these: I. Washington’s Birthday; II. Decoration Day; III. The Fourth of July; IV. Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day. The orchestral language, however, is rather more tortured… Ives’s intention in his symphony was to recreate the childhood holiday memories of an adult, however distorted. Cue the overlapping and confusion of themes and an original use of atonality that gives the work a unique piquancy – and poignancy.
Samuel Barber: Knoxville: Summer of 1915
‘It has become that time of the evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently.’ So begins, in lilting fashion, Barber’s exquisite idyll of American country life from the perspective of a small boy. In Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Barber sets music to the poetry of James Agee – on reading Agee’s poem, the composer wrote, ‘the summer evening [Agee] describes in his native southern town reminded me so much of similar evenings when I was a child at home’.
Nothing much happens, although Barber’s music clearly points to some sort of trouble on the horizon… and many have pointed to the child’s words sounding as if they were the memory of an adult. Here’s a beautiful rendition featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw with the Orchestra of St Luke’s under David Zinman.
Virgil Thomson: Film score to ‘The Plow That Broke the Plains‘
Critic and composer Virgil Thomson has been credited by many with developing the ‘American’ sound – his score to this 1937 US documentary is packed full of US folk tunes accompanying the story of disastrous, uncontrolled agricultural farming in 20th-century America.
Herbert Howells: Take him earth, for cherishing
It might seem odd to include a piece written by one of the most English of English composers in this list, but Herbert Howells’s searing 10-minute choral work expresses the deep sorrow, pain and regret of a nation following the assassination of John F Kennedy in Dallas in 1963.
In his sleeve note to his own 1967 recording, Howells wrote, ‘Within the year following the tragic death of President Kennedy in Texas, plans were made for a dual American-Canadian Memorial Service to be held in Washington. I was asked to compose an a cappella work for the commemoration. The text was mine to choose, Biblical or other. Choice was settled when I recalled a poem by Prudentius (AD 348–413). I had already set it in its medieval Latin years earlier, as a study for Hymnus Paradisi. But now I used none of that unpublished setting. Instead I turned to Helen Waddell’s faultless translation […] Here was the perfect text—the Prudentius “Hymnus circa exsequias defuncti”.’