Remembering Aaron Copland

Thirty-five years ago, roughly, I got myself into trouble. It was during music class, the once-a-week excursion outside of the classroom in the Catholic school that I attended in the 1970s, and into the music teacher’s classroom on the first floor. I’ll call the teacher Ms. F, but her full name isn’t really important to this story.

One day, as Ms. F was playing her piano and expecting us to sing along (I think I was in fourth or fifth grade at the time), some of my buddies and I were cutting up in class. We feared the nun who was our regular teacher–as we were supposed to do–but the music teacher didn’t scare us so very much. She probably ignored more of our misbehavior than she should have, but at some point she must have decided that we needed a punishment of some sort. So she told a couple of my buddies and I that we each had to write a report about Aaron Copland, who was probably the composer of the piece that she was playing for us that day.

A week went by, and I hadn’t done a thing for the report, and none of my buddies had, either. On the day that these reports were due, we all began writing reports that gave Copland credit for all sorts of amazing things. I specifically recall claiming that he had invented electricity, and the others were probably even more generous than I was. By the time we had finished out reports, Aaron Copland was just about the most accomplished man of the modern age.

I don’t remember what happened as the result of our creative academic works about Mr. Copland. We didn’t have Google back then, but it was pretty obvious that Aaron Copland hadn’t done any of the things that we gave him credit for. But today, all these years later, I read that Aaron Copland was born on this day (November 14) in 1900. So I decided to actually learn something about the man I was once sentenced to write a report on. And it turns out that I learned quite a bit.

But the single most amazing thing, which but for that long-ago punishment I would have missed out on, has a connection to Abraham Lincoln. The release of Lincoln in movie theaters has set me off on a bit of a Lincoln writing bender, so here’s still another piece about the Great Emancipator. But this one’s really good, I think.

In early 1942, when the nation was still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor, a concert was organized by conductor Andre Kostelanetz. Copland and two other composers were commissioned to write orchestral pieces about American themes. In the early 1940s, there was no television, no pay-per-view, and really no record industry as we know it today. There were no televised benefits where viewers could call in to an 800 number and make a donation with their credit cards. It was just a concert in a place, and in this case the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra was playing the music in May of 1942. The piece that Copland wrote for Kostelanetz was called Lincoln Portrait.

What made this piece so special was that it made use of Lincoln’s own words, from the Gettysburg Address and his 1862 Message to Congress, in which he stated “We cannot escape history.” It also told details from Lincoln’s personal life, in the hopes of rallying its audience, and the nation itself, to war. Almost eighty years after his death, Lincoln’s life and words served as an artistic inspiration. And, as Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis are now showing us, they can still inspire us today.

Thanks to some Googling this afternoon, I was able to get the idea that Ms. F is still around, and probably living not very far from where I grew up. She probably won’t ever read this, as I’m sure that teaching music to me and my classmates is buried deep in the recesses of her memory. But thanks to her, and Google, and a composer’s name that I never forgot, I was able to learn something new and interesting today. Every day should hold such a pleasant surprise, shouldn’t it?.


Finding Lincoln, again

I’ve written about unexpected encounters with Lincoln before. I grew up in Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois, and I now live in Chicago, where he would have most likely returned to, had he lived to complete his second term. Lincoln seems to be everywhere, and yet I’m always happy when he turns up anew.

Last weekend, I was marveled at the recently-opened doors to the Deering Library on Northwestern’s campus in Evanston, Illinois. When the main university library opened up in 1970, the doors to the Deering Library–which was built during the 1930s–were closed up, until they were re-opened just a few days ago.

I worked in the Deering library as an undergraduate, so I knew it was a special place on the inside. But because the entrance was never used, the exterior was never really examined, by me or anyone else. We came and went through the main library entrance as Deering sat there, the hidden gem of the campus.

And then, a strange thing happened. A series of books about young wizards appeared, and they were all hugely successful. These books were then turned into movies, which were also tremendously successful. And the Deering Library, which seems as if would fit right in at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, has now been reopened to the public. Not really a coincidence, if you ask me.

While wandering around the exterior of the building last weekend–taking it all in as I never did a quarter-century ago–I spotted a stained glass window containing Lincoln’s familiar visage on the second floor, facing out toward the main library entrance. The window was created when the library was built in the 1930s, but observing it for the first time was a joyous experience for me.

I took many pictures of my new find, wanting to capture the surrounding brick and the red ivy that adorned it. While the window had been for all the years that I was on campus, I only noticed it for the first time last weekend. But better late than not at all, which is also true for most good things in life.

The Lincoln movie is opening up later this month, and I’m sure that it will spark a revival of all things Lincoln. I’ve written many Lincoln pieces in this space, and entering “Lincoln” into the search bar of this blog yields quite a few results. This one is a special Lincoln find, though, and it comes with the added bonus of having a wonderful old library all around it. It’s well worth a look for any Lincoln fans who might be in the area.

Becoming Lincoln

Election fatigue is setting in, after all of these months of campaigning. And it’s true that I want the election to end quickly, but I think that there might be a post-election fight, just like there was in 2000 when George W. Bush was awarded the presidency by the Supreme Court. I very much hope I’m wrong about that.

But my real reason for wanting to flash forward a few weeks isn’t for the next president, but the 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. The movie posters are up all around town, and the trailer is now in all the theaters and online. It occurs to me that, for all the pictures I’ve ever seen of Abraham Lincoln, I’ve never seen him smile. I’ve never heard him speak, either. I realize that Daniel Day-Lewis isn’t going to be Abraham Lincoln, but from the look of everything I’ve seen, he is going to become Abraham Lincoln. And that’s no small thing, either.

Seeing Lincoln onscreen will be challenging, in a way. He’s always existed as the face on the penny and the $5 bill, or the sculpture in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, or up on Mount Rushmore. To see Lincoln walking and speaking and laughing and riding a horse will be a new one for me.

I remember Sam Waterston’s portrayal of Lincoln in the 1980s, but I never really bought him as being Lincoln. And I’ve seen Lincoln impersonators before, but I’ve never gone all in with them, either. But Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis will be spending two hours and more making us believe that we are watching the Great Emancipator onscreen. I’m hoping they succeed at this, too. We’ll all find out soon enough.

I can’t wait for this

My admiration for Abraham Lincoln runs deep. I carry Lincoln’s name as my own middle name, and proudly so. Nobody ever changed America for the better more than he did. Ending slavery, which had existed for centuries, was an unqualified good thing. And he made it happen, almost all by himself.

The prospect of a movie about his life and his struggles in the White House is exciting. But in the hands of Steven Spielberg, who is probably the best movie director there’s ever been, it’s even more exciting than that. The film is coming out after the election, so it’s still about two months away. But seeing it will be imperative once it does come out.

I’m foreseeing lots of Oscar buzz about this one, just because the names attached to the movie (Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, and Tommy Lee Jones, among others) and the Lincoln interest that has remained strong ever since 1865.

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book A Team of Rivals was the basis for this movie, and it is a superb read. So that material, in the hands of an ace director and top notch acting talent, can’t help but be a movie for the ages, can it?

Come November, I’ll either be relieved at the outcome of the election or disgusted beyond words, and anyone who’s been here before knows which outcome would evoke which reaction. But either way it turns out, the president I’ll be most interested in seeing will be the one who won the Civil War. Neither of the current candidates will ever come close to what he accomplished.