Choral Music Based On Great American Words

Mar 14, 2014

Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” has been performed numerous times since Copland wrote the piece, shortly following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1942. Iconic voices including Henry Fonda, Katherine Hepburn and James Earl Jones have read Lincoln’s words to Copland’s music.

Here & Now’s Robin Young will take on the challenge this coming weekend on a program that also includes more contemporary works that also take on American themes. They include David Conte’s “Elegy for Matthew,” which was written for Matthew Shepard, a gay man killed in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998, and Lee Hoiby’s “Last Letter Home,” which sets to music the final letter that a soldier sent to Iraq wrote to his wife and family.

Lisa Graham, music director of the Metropolitan Chorale of Brookline and director of choral programs at Wellesley College, speaks with Robin Young about some of the challenges in performing these and other choral works.

Choral Music Playlist

  • Aaron Copland “Lincoln Portrait” performed by:
    • Henry Fonda & London Symphony Orchestra
    • Katherine Hepburn & Cincinnati Pops Orchestra
    • James Earl Jones & Seattle Symphony Orchestra
  • Lee Hoiby and Jesse Givens “Last Letter Home” performed by Cantus
  • David Conte and James Geiger “Elegy for Matthew” performed by the U.C. Davis Chorus and Orchestra, Jeffrey Thomas, conductor
  • Howard Hanson and Walt Whitman “Song of Democracy” performed by Eastman School of Music Chorus, Eastman-Rochester Orchestra, Howard Hanson, Conductor
  • Halsey Stevens and Stephen Vincent Benet and The Ballad of William Sycamore performed by USC Choral Ensembles and Orchestra, conducted by William Dehning
  • Charles Ives “Circus Band” performed by San Francisco Symphony and Symphony Chorus,, Michael Tilson Thomas conductor
  • Stephen Flaherty and Charles Ives “Wheels of a Dream,” performed by original Broadway cast


  • Lisa Graham, music director of the Metropolitan Chorale of Brookline and Evelyn Barry director of choral programs at Wellesley College.
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YOUNG: Aaron Copland composed his masterpiece, "Lincoln Portrait," in 1942, just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, beautiful music with text from Lincoln's own words.


YOUNG: James Earl Jones, before that, Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, giants narrating "Lincoln Portrait." So I'm not feeling any pressure as I prepare to do it this weekend.

LISA GRAHAM: (Singing), that first one.

YOUNG: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

GRAHAM: And then later, we must disenthrall ourselves. (singing). Yeah.


YOUNG: That's Lisa Graham, music director of the Metropolitan Chorale of Brookline, Massachusetts, trying to rehearse me for this weekend's performance not just of the Copland piece but several others that include powerful text. The program with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra is called "American Stories." Lisa Graham is also the Evelyn Barry director of choral programs at Wellesley College. And she joins us in the studio to think for a second about this beautiful music. And, Lisa, first, anymore hints on "Lincoln Portrait."

GRAHAM: Copland makes it easy because he lays the groundwork. He makes the picture frame for the "Portrait."

YOUNG: Well, Lincoln makes it even easier with his beautiful words, as to others in the program that you picked. The whole program is about words, events set to music. Americana in a score. "Last Letter Home" was composed by the late Lee Hoiby in 2006 from a letter written by U.S. Army First Class Jesse Givens. Tell us more.

GRAHAM: Jesse's letter was to his wife in the circumstance that he not come home, which, unfortunately, was the reality.

YOUNG: He died in Iraq in 2003.

GRAHAM: He did. And Lee Hoiby said it beautifully.

YOUNG: Well, let's listen. The letter again to Jesse Givens' wife, Melissa, his 5-year-old stepson Dakota or Toad and his yet-to-be-born son Carson, who've been nicknamed Bean. The work was commissioned by Cantus, the men's vocal ensemble and here's a little of that group performing.


YOUNG: How are going to take...

GRAHAM: That moment, I am so sorry, really, is so effective.

YOUNG: You're in tears now.

GRAHAM: I really am. That moment and the message that he says to his stepson, Dakota, I hope, one day, you will have a son like mine.


YOUNG: The challenge must be not to overcome those beautiful words with the music.

GRAHAM: Agreed. And I think as performers, it's important that we don't indulge in the emotions too much ourselves so that we can best relay it to the audience, so they can experience it for themselves. Not get in the way of the piece, in other words.

YOUNG: You have another contemporary work. This is David Conte's "Elegy for Matthew," written about Matthew Shepard, of course, the young gay man killed in 1998 in Laramie, Wyoming. Now, we should say, recently, it's interesting, an investigative journalist, himself gay, Steven Jimenez, says that he believes one of the convicted killers in that case only said initially that he was in a gay panic, that Matthew Shepard was gay and beat him because he was covering up their drug deal gone wrong. But most believe Matthew Shepard was a martyr. And the case definitely drew attention to gay hate crimes. Here's some of "Elegy for Matthew" being performed by the UC Davis Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by Jeffrey Thomas.


YOUNG: You know the composer, David Conte. What was the process behind writing this?

GRAHAM: Well, David was commissioned by the New York Gay Men's Chorus in 1999. And David had his friend and longtime collaborator, John Sterling Walker write the poem, which apparently he did in the space of about half an hour. He was so passionate about the subject. And it's actually and acrostic, using Matthew S, Matthew Shepard's name, that each line of the poem starts with one of those letters.


YOUNG: These are more modern, and they expose some flaws in America as they are even Americana music in a way. You have a number of selections that are maybe more traditional, "Song of Democracy." The late Howard Hanson composed this work based on two poems by Walt Whitman.


YOUNG: And you'll also be performing "The Ballad of William Sycamore," written by Halsey Stevens.


YOUNG: This is almost like a Daniel Boone feel.

GRAHAM: It is, like Davy Crockett.

YOUNG: There's coonskin caps in there. And then there's Charles Ives" "Circus Band." Let's listen to a little of that.


GRAHAM: I think that's the idea behind "The American Stories." We wanted to show sort of many different sides of what it means to be an American and how patriotism is expressed in many different forms musically.

YOUNG: By the way, as the director, these are all adults but - and probably have performed a lot of these before - but do you still have to say to them, OK, here's where you forget all the cynicism of the iPhone age, and here's where you have to do something more to reach what these words mean?

GRAHAM: I think so. It's really important to keep coming back to the text because that's what we have as chorale musicians. But sometimes, the text starts to be sounds when you're rehearsing them a lot, and we lose touch with the meaning of the text. That's when it's time to reinvest, to speak the poem aloud separately from the music to really know what you're singing about. And the orchestra was given the text for all of the music early on so that they would have a connection to what they're playing as well.

YOUNG: And what do you think this music stands? We're accustomed to going to big chorale productions, and they're singing massive pieces from Bach or, you know, where does this music fit?

GRAHAM: I think this music has a really special place. The chorus enjoy singing the music. They take it to heart. I think it's so uplifting. And even in the sadder moments or the moments that are more emotionally poignant, there's something so beautiful about sad music that it brings joy, and the joy of the beauty.

YOUNG: Lisa Graham, the Evelyn Barry director of choral programs at Wellesley College, music director of the Metropolitan Chorale. More on these songs of America, go to Lisa, thanks so much.

GRAHAM: Thank you, Robin.


YOUNG: Leave you with another one, "Wheels of a Dream" from Ragtime. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.


I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.