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Mystic Chords of Memory: Abraham Lincoln and the Performing Arts


Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Sketch in the composer's hand of his fantasia "The Union," which he played at a concert attended by President Abraham Lincoln on March 24, 1864. Music Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. © The New York PLouis Moreau Gottschalk. Sketch in the composer's hand of his fantasia "The Union," which he played at a concert attended by President Abraham Lincoln on March 24, 1864. Music Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. © The New York PA series exploring Lincoln's love for the performing arts, the music of his time, and works that have been inspired by him

"The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."
— Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1861, from his first inaugural address

Participants in the series include Eliot Feld, who choreographed a ballet based on Copland's "Lincoln Portrait"; Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University; Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, who serves as Co-Chair of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission; Baritone James Martin; Arthur Mitchell, Artistic Director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem; Copland scholar Vivian Perlis, Founding Director of Yale's Oral History, American Music (OHAM); and many actors and musicians. The Library is deeply grateful to the participants, who are among the thousands of artists and lecturers who donate their time and talent to the Performing Arts Library's public programs.

In the most difficult moments of his presidency, nothing provided Abraham Lincoln more respite than to immerse himself in a play at either Ford’s theater or Grover’s playhouse. It is estimated that Lincoln visited the theater more than a hundred times during his four years as president.

"It gave him an hour or two of freedom from care and worry," an assistant observed, and what was better, freedom from the interruption of office-seekers and politicians. The theater held all the elements of a perfect escape. Enthralled by the live drama, the costumes, the scenery and the stagecraft, Lincoln was transported into a realm far from the troubling events that filled the rest of his waking hours. At a performance of Henry IV, it was noted how thoroughly Lincoln enjoyed himself. He has forgotten the war. He has forgotten Congress. He is out of politics. He is living in Prince Hal’s time.

-- Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln


January 22, 2009 – 6:00 PM THU
A House Divided: The Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Readings by Dana Ivey and James Rebhorn, with commentary by Eric Foner. Professor Foner is DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University. His best-known books are Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War, Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877, Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction, and Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World, an edited collection of original essays.

January 29, 2009 – 6:00 PM THU
Eliot Feld in Conversation with Harold Holzer

Mr. Feld, the choreographer of the ballet "Lincoln Portrait," will discuss the work with Mr. Holzer, Co-Chair of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Committee. The program will include a screening of the ballet.

February 5, 2009 – 6:00 PM THU
Bryan Wagorn, piano; with guest artists Emily Duncan-Brown, soprano; Matthew Wolf, tenor; Ilana Setapen, violin; Nimrod David Pfeffer, piano

Re-creation of a performance attended by Abraham Lincoln on March 24, 1864. The program includes works by Louis Moreau Gottschalk (who performed his own compositions at the concert), Beethoven, Ernst, Gumbert, Paganini, and Verdi.

In the March 24, 1864 entry for his Notes of a Pianist, Gottschalk wrote: "Concert at Washington. The President of the United States and his lady are to be there. I have reserved seats for them in the first row. The Secretary of State, Mr. Seward, accompanies them. Mrs. Lincoln has a very ordinary countenance. Lincoln is remarkably ugly, but has an intelligent air, and his eyes have a remarkable expression of goodness and mildness. After an encore I played my fantasia, The Union, in the midst of great enthusiasm."

February 7, 2009 – 3:00 PM SAT
Patriotism and Politics: The Story Behind Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait"

Lecture by Vivian Perlis.



February 12, 2009 – 3:00 PM THU
Bicentennial Day: Readings by and about Lincoln

Readings by Arthur Mitchell and Dance Theatre of Harlem alumni dance artists Duncan Cooper and Virginia Johnson. The program will conclude with a performance of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," sung by members of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus (Constance Green, Ellen Lang, Irwin Reese, John Shelhart), with Robert Rogers at the piano. The program will open with a ten-minute video excerpt from Lincoln Center Theater's 1993 production of Abe Lincoln in Illinois.

February 28, 2009 – 3:00 PM SAT
"O Captain My Captain": An Afternoon of Art Songs Inspired by Lincoln and His Time

Songs include "The Assassination" (Norman Dello Joio); "Dear Youth" (Daron Hagen); "Lincoln Letters" (Christopher Berg); "War Scenes" (Ned Rorem); "O Captain, My Captain" (Kurt Weill); "O Captain, My Captain" (Lee Hoiby); "A Great Hope Fell" and "A Letter from Annie Davis to Abraham Lincoln" (Jake Heggie); and others. Performers include Katherine Whyte, soprano; James Rodgers, tenor; Tyler Duncan, baritone; Jayn Rosenfeld, flute; Erika Switzer, piano.

March 2, 2009 – 6:00 PM MON
"O, My Offense Is Rank": Lincoln's Favorite Shakespeare Speeches

Readings by actors with commentary by Harold Holzer.

March 21, 2009 – 3:00 PM SAT
Emancipation's JubilationsSpirituals and Songs That Led a Nation
James Martin, Baritone

A recital based on songs Lincoln heard at a contraband camp (slaves who had escaped slavery), including "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen," "Every Time I Feel the Spirit," "I Thank God that I Am Free at Last," "John Brown's Body," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "Didn't My God Deliver Daniel," "Go Down, Moses," "I Ain't Got Weary Yet," "I've Been in the Storm So Long," "Steal Away," and "Praise God, From Whom All Blessings Flow." According to Aunt Mary Dines, a free black woman employed at the White House, Lincoln used to sing along with these songs.