Letters from Lincoln (2009) for baritone and orchestra was commissioned by the Spokane Symphony in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth (1809-1865). The world premiere was given by the Spokane Symphony under the direction of Eckart Preu, with Thomas Hampson, baritone, at the Martin Woldson Theatre at the Fox, Spokane, Washington on February 28, 2009. The work is 25 minutes in length and scored for baritone solo, piccolo, flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, contrabassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, two percussion, harp and strings.
Historians and the public generally regard Lincoln as America’s greatest president who successfully led the United States through the Civil War and initiated the end of slavery. His life, which was full of spectacular opposites, ironies, contradictions and pathos, provided me with abundance of musical dramatic possibilities.
Born in 1809 in a one-room log cabin in rural Kentucky to uneducated, poor farmers, Lincoln was able teach himself how to read, write and do arithmetic by reading Shakespeare, poetry, newspapers and books on philosophy and mathematics. He also taught himself how to play the violin and harmonica, became a champion wrestler and was handy with an axe. That he eventually became President of the United States from such humble beginnings has baffled biographers ever since.
As a young man in Illinois, he practiced law by driving a horse and buggy across the Midwest prairie from town to town where he earned the nickname "Honest Abe". There he became a successful lawyer and politician who could dazzle a crowd with his witty comments, humorous stories and theatrical way of delivering a speech. At the same time, Lincoln was a loner who could sit for hours at time in deep thought, “wrapped in abstraction and gloom”. If he went to a concert, lecture or minstrel show, “he would just as soon go alone”. Although Lincoln was a spiritual man who often quoted the Bible and frequently made use of biblical images in his writings, he never joined a church.
As a young man in New Salem, Illinois, he fell in love with Anne Rutledge and never recovered from her untimely death at the age of 22. In 1842, Lincoln reluctantly married the high strung and temperamental Mary Todd (1818-1882); a decision, which haunted him the rest of his life.
After only a two-year term as congressman from Illinois in the United States House of Representatives, the widely unknown and untested Lincoln was elected the 16th President of the United States at a time when the country was at the brink of Civil War (1860-1865). With little military experience, Lincoln became the Commander-in-Chief of the Union army in this “bloody war.” He did not hesitate to use violent force when necessary, and micromanaged the battle strategies of his generals and their battles. Yet Lincoln was a peaceful man who believed in solving conflict with “peaceful ballots” and not “bloody bullets”: he never fired a shot as a young man in the Blackhawk Indian War, and he was against the hunting of animals with firearms.
After being re-elected to a second term as President and only days after General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Confederate army to General Ulysses S. Grant, Lincoln, who was eager to begin the peaceful reunification of a war torn country, was assassinated on April 15, 1865.
While composing this musical work inspired by Lincoln, I discovered ways to bring his historic greatness into the present. I read Lincoln’s speeches, poems and letters and studied his life; I visited the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., and I traveled to the battlefields of Gettysburg; during this time I also became involved in the 2008 presidential campaign of Barack Obama.
Lincoln's impassioned writings, from his youth as poor boy in the backwoods of Kentucky to his tragic death as President of the United States, have moved me to take his own words, both public and private, and set them to song. In Letters from Lincoln, I create a musical portrait of a man who expressed his vision with eloquence, and with hope that the human spirit could overcome prejudice and differences of opinion in order to create a better world.
- Michael Daugherty