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Requiem For President Abraham Lincoln

There’s great anticipation—culturally and artistically speaking—surrounding the forthcoming feature movie Lincoln, to be released in theatres on November 16th, 2012. Directed by Academy-Award winning director, Steven Spielberg, and starring Academy-Award winning actor, Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, the movie is based on Doris Goodwin’s biography of Lincoln called Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

 

Abraham Lincoln
Promotional Poster

The film highlights Lincoln’s passionate quest to end slavery and the Civil War, concluding with the death of the President.

The movie is bound to be a box office hit, eliciting conversation and debate over the influence of America’s famous son.

Yet the movie is not the only artistic endeavor dealing with the death of Abraham Lincoln. Scores of books, essays, poems, paintings, plays, and documentaries have uncovered every known detail of the events that led to his murder by actor John Wilkes Booth on April 15th, 1865.

One lesser known work—but as artistically relevant—is the musical composition Requiem For Abraham Lincoln written by American composer, Warner Hutchison.

I was privileged to meet up with Warner at his home studio in Rio Rancho, New Mexico to discuss the masterpiece, asking about the influence of the former President on his life and music.

Why did you choose to write a piece about Abraham Lincoln, I ask?

“Lincoln has always been my favorite President. As an eight-year old boy I played Lincoln in a school play, reciting the Emancipation Proclamation in full costume, including the stovetop hat.

“Beyond that, I’ve been drawn to the courage of the man. America was in a bad place during the Civil War; we were a divided Nation. It took valor and great nerve to stand for what was right, in this case the end of slavery.

 

President Abraham Lincoln

“Furthermore, I wanted to focus on the end of his life in my composition. In a sense, his murder was the beginning of new life for so many people. Lincoln represented what is great about America.”

“On a practical side, I was commissioned by the Music Teacher’s National Association, New Mexico Chapter to write the work. The Requiem was commissioned for the bicentennial of the United States. The Association didn’t give me any thematic or musical guidelines. Because of my interest in Abraham Lincoln and his impact on the United States, I chose him as my theme. I wanted to produce a piece that began with the assignation and the aftermath of this death—a dark moment in US’s history. I think I gave them more than what they bargained for.”

When did you write the work?

“I started in 1974, ending in 1975. I received a grant to compose the work at The MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. The Colony is one of the oldest artist colonies in the United States, allowing writers, playwrights, poets, and composers to carve out time to create. Each artist lives in a separate cabin in the countryside. I had a cabin on the 200-acre property just to myself. I had a piano and composition paper. It was a wonderful experience.”

Your piece is dark and very modern, verging on Avant-garde. What influenced your style of music?

“It’s funny you ask that. Because at the MacDowell Colony I put screws, bolts, and other objects into the piano to get an ethereal sound that I was looking for. When you play on the keys you get a very interesting, quasi-percussion sounds. This type of manipulation of the piano is called a prepared piano. Additionally, I added recorded segments. The speeches of Abraham Lincoln are on a tape that plays behind the composers.

 

Composer Warner Hutchison

“Overall, I’ve been influenced by many steams of 20th Century modern music: 12-tone, minimalism, electronic, and the like. Modern music in the U.S. started with Charles Ives’ unorthodox approach. European composers including Arnold Schoenberg abandoned traditional major-minor tonality and chose very dissonant melodies and harmonies.

“The Requiem of Abraham Lincoln is aleatoric, meaning that it does not have any designated key; there is no stable tonality. It feels spontaneous, dark, and dense. Though it is written out in musical notation, it feels improvised.

“It is a very heavy composition. We’d say dissonant. I wanted to capture the darkness that was cast over the US, and the confusion and dismay that Lincoln’s death caused, in addition to the death manifest in the Civil War itself.”

I notice that the music score is very visual. It has a shape of a cross, triangle, and circle. Why the shapes?

“I’m a visual person. I like to have a visual presence with my music, both on stage and on the page of the score. One of the first composers to use visual notation was American composer, George Crumb. He symbolically laid out his music notation to represent a greater theme found within the music. This is sort of what the poet, E.E Cummings, did with his poetry. I used visual notation with my Requiem. I put in a cross—representing Lincoln’s death and his faith, as well as other symbols to express the totality of the music. It’s part of the art.”

Let’s talk about the visual side of the piece. I notice in your notes on the score that it calls for the performers to dress in medieval robes as well as a cross-illuminated structure with lights. What’s this about?

 

Part of the Score for Requiem for Abraham Lincoln

“Like I said, I’m a visual person. The Requiem is a staged piece. I’ve written several works like this. I’m affected by the visual components on stage. The combination of voice, movement, and action is fascinating to me. I really enjoy seeing musicians perform, both musically and through movement on the stage. For the Requiem, I had the two pianists do more than just play piano; they chanted the movements of the Mass as well as dressed the part—in robes.

“The lighted cross was an addition to drive home the Christian theme of the Requiem. The whole experience caused one lady in the audience to scream and walk out of the performance. Her outburst was totally unexpected. It was overwhelming for her. But the show went on,” he concludes with a laugh.

How many movements are there in the piece, I ask?

“The Requiem follows — to a certain degree — the traditional form of the Catholic Mass. In all, it has eight movements: an intro, Kyrie, Tractus, Dies Irae, Lacrimosa, Sanctus-Benedictus, Agnus Dei, and the Requiescat. These are all Latin terms. For my piece I used sub-titles to give them a little more connection to Lincoln’s life. Take for instance the Kyrie. I called it Freedom Versus Slavery. And the Lacrimosa I called the Aftermath of War.”

How long of a composition is the Requiem?

“Like any piece of music, it all depends on how quickly the musicians play it. But I believe it was around 47 minutes long. Sadly, because of the length and dark nature of the music, it’s not performed much today.”

I notice that the timeframe in which you were writing the Requiem—mid 1970’s—was at the end of a volatile time in U.S history- Kennedy was killed a few years earlier, Martin Luther King murdered, and political and social unrest was found throughout the U.S. Were there any thoughts or connection of your piece, written about Lincoln’s death almost a century earlier, to the modern problems facing the world when you wrote it in 1974?

“I hadn’t thought of that, but I think this is very true.”

So how does one summarize such a work as the Requiem for Abraham Lincoln? Though hard to recapitulate, the site, Requiem Survey, does a fine job in giving us direction by stating, the “Mass for Abraham Lincoln, a huge requiem mass, is for an unusual set of performers intended as concert music, not as a traditional Latin requiem mass. Its eight movements carry the titles of most of the parts of the Roman Catholic mass, but the content is excerpts from speeches by Abraham Lincoln. The work is for two performers, amplified and prepared piano, and tape (or CD). The recorded accompanying tape (CD) has a narration of Lincoln’s words, interspersed with sounds of U.S. Civil War battle cries, et al. The two performers perform simultaneously on the piano which is amplified through loud speakers. They are garbed in black vestments, and sing or intone some fragments from the sung portions (Breviary) of the Mass service.”

Concise summary for a marvelous work!

After an hour at Warner’s house, Kyle and I said our goodbyes, thanked Warner for his time, and left. Our discussion on the way to lunch was on the deep nature and themes of the Requiem—from its opening dissonant chords, crescendoing to a scream, to the interjection of Lincoln’s speeches mixed with Latin chants.

We also discussed the need for people to capture—on tape and video—the artists of our day. In doing this we gain a deeper understanding of the pulse of our culture and history.

For artists—be it musicians, poets, novelists, actors, dancers, painters or movie makers—are truly a mirror of our society, giving voice and representation to the ideas relating to philosophy, religion, politics and all movements that concern us, raising our awareness and imparting a sense of beauty, shock, or awe.

In an age of continued political unrest around the world and within the United States, it’s refreshing to sit down with a composer/artist—who not only has created a marvelous, thought-provoking piece of music—but has highlighted the noble and virtuous characteristics of a man that many should learn to emulate. This is art at its finest.

To watch an excerpt of Kyle O’Hea’s video of my interview with composer, Warner Hutchison, please click here: http://youtu.be/5S7ecmfl84k

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