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Unusual UC Research Project Examines Abraham Lincoln’s Impact on Musical Compositions


Music communicates a lot regarding how we remember a person, place, thing or idea. Music about Abraham Lincoln is no different. An ongoing UC research project is examining the American experience of Abraham Lincoln through the music written about him from 1865 to 2009. Take a listen to one of those songs.

Date: 4/4/2011 12:00:00 AM
By: M.B. Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos By: Lisa Ventre and Lilly Library, Indiana University

UC ingot   University of Cincinnati doctoral student Tom Kernan hopes his unusual research project hits the right note with both historians and music lovers
Tom Kernan
UC's Tom Kernan is investigating almost 150 years’ worth of music related to Abraham Lincoln.

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Kernan, 28, originally from Long Island, NY, is earning his doctorate in musicology at UC’s nationally and internationally renowned College-Conservatory of Music. As part of his degree requirement to complete a long-term, in-depth, unique research project, he is investigating almost 150 years’ worth of music related to Civil War President Abraham Lincoln, from the time of Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865 up to 2009 (the bicentennial year of Lincoln’s birth).

He explained, “Music historians often study a particular composer, stylistic period or genre of composition. It’s less common to study music from many different composers and in many different styles, but all pertaining to one person. Music that memorializes a particular person is usually composed during that person’s lifetime or soon thereafter, but Lincoln has received so much attention from generation after generation of musicians.”

And while the Lincoln legacy as expressed in terms of histories, literature, theater and film has been studied, Kernan believes his project might be the first to examine Lincoln through the lens of nearly 150 years of American music history.

The end result of his project will be an examination of how Lincoln is treated in music and thus, how certain time periods and generations thought about and remembered him and the Civil War, or how they hoped to use the Lincoln mystique for other purposes.

THE SONG THAT BEST CAPTURES THE LINCOLN LEGACY

“Music can be considered as much a monument as a physical statue, as a painted portrait, poem or other creative work,” Kernan stated.

So far, he has identified more than 150 musical works related to Lincoln. Kernan figures he has hundreds of additional works to study before completing his project in June 2012.

Of all the music studied to date, Kernan said the composition that best encapsulates the enduring Lincoln legacy is a funeral poem set to music right after Lincoln’s 1865 assassination. It’s titled “Farewell Father, Friend and Guardian.”

“It anticipates the next 150 years and how Lincoln was to be remembered. It captures the notion that Lincoln was something of a regular guy, friendly, cordial and compassionate but also strong, firm of purpose and a source of wisdom,” Kernan explained.

That song was published in Chicago with a great many others related to Lincoln in 1865. Kernan explained that the music-publishing business of the time worked fast and furious to churn out songs of a topical nature in order to appeal to a broad audience where many people played and sang on a daily basis as part of routine entertainment, information sharing and commentary. People sang and played music as routinely as we turn on a television.

“Lincoln’s funeral train left Washington, D.C., in April 1865, traveled up to New York City and then through the Midwest to its end point in Springfield, Ill., in early May. In all of those places where it stopped or passed, the music publishers were rushing the printing and distribution of songs for the population to have and use in their public and private commemorations. You have to recall that no one was expecting the assassination, so music composers, military band leaders and publishers had to work very quickly,” he said.

THE “LINCOLN” SONG THAT HAS LASTED THE LONGEST

He estimated that the popular song associated with Lincoln that has enjoyed the greatest longevity was actually written before the assassination. “We Are Coming, Father Abraham, 300,000 More” was written in 1862 and set to music by Stephen Foster as a stirring call to arms seeking 300,000 Union Army volunteers.

Said Kernan, “The music to that piece still gets used in Civil War movies, often piped into the background. It enjoyed renewed popularity after the Lincoln assassination, as did songs used by Lincoln in his 1864 campaign for re-election.”

Other prominent eras that have referenced Lincoln include World War II and the 1950s and 1960s Civil Rights Movement when composers often referenced Lincoln as part of a call to action. For instance, composer Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” premiered in Cincinnati in 1942. The work involves a full orchestra with narrations of Lincoln’s greatest documents, including the Gettysburg Address. It’s still performed. In 2009, it was performed in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and in several other U.S. cities.

During the 2009 bicentennial commemoration of Lincoln’s birth, many organizations commissioned new works related to the Civil War president. For instance, Michael Daugherty, a prominent and widely performed American concert music composer, premiered “Letters from Lincoln” in Spokane, Wash., with American baritone Thomas Hampson singing Lincoln’s words.

Other recent musical works related to Lincoln have included operas, blues and bluegrass including
  • Carmel Owen’s 2006 musical about Mrs. Lincoln, “Asylum: The Strange Case of Mary Todd Lincoln.”
  • Eric Sawyer’s 2007 opera, “Our American Cousin,” cleverly titled after the play Lincoln was attending at the time of his assassination.
  • Philip Glass’s 2007 opera, “Appomattox,” commissioned by the San Francisco Opera. 
  • Blues and bluegrass compositions by Emory Lester and David Vidal, respectively, titled “John Wilkes Booth,” after Lincoln’s assassin.


 
RETURN to UC Highlights 150th Anniversary of Civil War’s Start with New Research.