Musical Explanation 1/13/16: A Lincoln Portrait by Aaron Copland
"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 must we think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country."
There's been much comparison these last seven years between Obama and Lincoln. It says much that Obama, the only President representing Illinois since Lincoln and Grant, has always draped himself in Lincolnian mythos rather than mythos surrounding the Founding Fathers or Franklin Roosevelt. To be sure, Obama and Lincoln were very different presidents - in some ways diametrically opposed in their governing philosophies. Nevertheless, there is at least one sense in which Lincoln and Obama stand together - they both arose out of necessity. In times of American crisis, both Presidents arose quickly from obscurity to become the Presidents our country required in a time when our country required a great leader to rewrite what our country is because anything less than that would have put the country in terrible peril.
There are few truly transformative presidents like that. Is Obama truly a member of the elect along with Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt? Probably not - as the crisis of our era was not quite as gripping as those crises of former days, Obama has not transformed the country to the same extent. Nevertheless, he will always be the Northern Star for my generation - the proof that America, for all its hypocrisy and mendacious demons, is still an idea very much worth fighting for. In a time of troubles, a great leader arose who did so much to right the ship of American democracy before this original experiment among the modern democracies could sink into history's mire. In 2008, the Bush administration's economic ignorance came so very close to a depression that could have exceeded The Great Depression - to say nothing of the international damage. Even now, in 2016, our recovery seems tenuous - as though the entire scenario could replay itself within a generation. For every gain, there is an equivalent loss. As the identity of the country is once again rewritten, the voices who wish to prevent that rewriting grow louder and louder - in the cases of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz they use bullhorns.
America has always had history and luck on its side. Perhaps our luck is running out. The America of 2016, institutionally unsound, systemically decaying, does not now seem like the machine of endless reinvention it has always seemed to be. Obama has righted our ship on policy, but at the price that the political system is more fraught and gridlocked than ever before. At the end of the Obama presidency, the machine that lets some Americans prosper on the backs of others is finally laid absolutely bare and stark naked. And in this moment when racial issues seem finally within striking distance of a beginning of redress, the old America, the America as unapologetically racist as ever before, appears willing to move Heaven and Earth to keep America as it was.
As Lincoln said: "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."
America could yet become everything the world fears, but we're not there yet, and even if it turns back the clock on tyranny, the awesome dream of what it means to be an American - reinvention, self-improvement, opportunity, freedom tempered by community and trust, should serve as an inspiration in countries that in the future might embody the sublime American spirit better than we do.
That American sublimity is what A Lincoln Portrait is about. It's far from Copland's most intricate score, but in its simple fragments, it speaks to those spiritual places where every American yearns to go.
From the earliest age, Copland's music sounded American to me, as it does to everybody else. I don't have the secret of Aaron Copland, but I do have a theory. America, nearly as large by itself as the entire European continent, is a land of open space. Except perhaps for a Russian, no European can possibly understand what such open spaces feel like unless they come to America to see them for themselves. Even now, the plurality of American land lies unpopulated, untouched and rife with opportunity for settlement.
Copland's music, with its endless stream of open chords, is like a projection of American space in our ears. The tonalities of Europe are a monarchy, with the tonic note serving as king, the dominant his viceroy, and the third being the nobles and gentry who administer over the other notes, the plebes. Dodecaphonic music and atonal music are merely a subversions of the old monarchy, and however much a few individual composers have achieved within it, it's merely a rebellion against the old system with no plans for the future. Whatever American music is, it has yet to be determined. Even to this day when America begins to show its age, American music is Copland's open field, full of the rhythm and vigor of youth, and waiting to be settled.