Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight: Program Notes

Florence Price (1887–1953)

Florence Price, née Smith, was born on April 9, 1887, in Little Rock, Arkansas. As a young girl she attended Capitol Hill School in Little Rock, graduating as valedictorian in 1903. She then studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, a notable achievement for a black woman at that time. In 1907, she received degrees as an organist and as a piano teacher.

Price served briefly as head of the music department at Clark Atlanta University in Georgia before marrying and returning to Little Rock. After being refused admission to the all-white Arkansas Music Teachers Association, she founded the Little Rock Club of Musicians and taught music at the segregated black schools.

Worsening racial tensions in Arkansas in the 1920s convinced the Prices to move to Chicago, Illinois, in 1927. She pursued further musical studies at the American Conservatory of Music and established herself in the Chicago area as a teacher, pianist, and organist. Florence Price’s career flourished after the move to Chicago, where she won multiple awards in competitions sponsored by the Rodman Wanamaker Foundation for her Piano Sonata in E Minor, a large-scale work in three movements, and her more important work, Symphony in E Minor.

The latter work premiered with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on June 15, 1933. This was the first time a black woman had presented her work on such a stage. Price’s art songs and spiritual arrangements were frequently performed by well-known artists of the day. For example, contralto Marian Anderson featured Price’s spiritual arrangement “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord” in her famous performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939.

In her lifetime, Price composed more than 300 works, ranging from small teaching pieces for piano to large-scale compositions such as symphonies and concertos, as well as instrumental chamber music, vocal compositions, and music for radio. Her musical style is a mixture of classical European music and the sounds of black spirituals, especially the rhythms associated with African heritage.

Price died in Chicago on June 3, 1953. Following her death, her work gradually went out of favor and was seldom performed. It has only been in the past decade that her work has been rediscovered and recognized as an important part of the American musical canon.

About “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight” by Vachel Lindsay

The poet Nicholas Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931), known as Vachel later in his life, published “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight” in 1914. Lindsay was born and spent his life in Springfield, Illinois, where stories and legends about Abraham Lincoln were part of Lindsay’s upbringing. In fact, Lindsay’s home in Springfield had once been owned by Lincoln’s sister-in-law, and Lincoln had visited there several times. Lindsay wrote many poems about Lincoln, of which “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight” is the best known.

Although Lindsay was born into a wealthy physician’s family, he chose the unconventional path of an itinerant poet rather than going into medicine. For most of his life, Lindsay sought to bring poetry to the masses by traveling around the country giving dramatic performances of his own poetry in exchange for room and board. Through his first-hand experience of poverty and his contact with the working classes, Lindsay became increasingly passionate about the values of equality and civic tolerance, values that Lincoln had embodied.

Beginning in the 1920s, Lindsay’s popularity declined, and his health also began to deteriorate. In December 1931, he drank a bottle of lye and died in his childhood home. Lindsay is buried at Springfield’s Oak Ridge Cemetery, where Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln’s wife, and all but one of Lincoln’s children are also buried. On Lindsay’s tombstone are inscribed his name and a single word: “Poet.”

Scholars have noted that “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight” bears several structural resemblances to Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address and that both works express the conviction that the living must complete the work of the dead. Written shortly after the start of World War I, “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight” is an ardent anti-war poem. Lindsay chooses the character of Abraham Lincoln to personify the poet’s outcry against World War I because Lincoln is a “great figure that men love” who had a deep personal aversion to war after having presided over the nation during the Civil War, in which 620,000 soldiers died.

In the poem, Lincoln is a “mourning figure” restlessly wandering the streets of Illinois, heart-sick and unable to rest in his grave “upon his hillside.” The lines “Too many peasants fight, they know not why/Too many homesteads in black terror weep” refer to the millions of Europe’s working-class poor who were then fighting and dying on the front lines. The references to “war-lords” and “kings” suggest that the blame for war can be placed in the hands of those who govern. The poem also refers to “dreadnoughts,” a type of battleship armed with powerful artillery used during World War I. These stanzas reflect the poet’s view that the scales of power were out of balance, with a few rulers holding the power to annihilate the common people on a huge scale.

In the final stanza of the poem, Lindsay again points to Lincoln’s sorrow at the fact that Europe’s rulers have led the world into war. The lines “. . . that all his hours of travail here for men / Seem yet in vain” refer to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, in which he said, “we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom . . .” Lincoln carries on his shoulders the “bitterness, the folly and the pain” of knowing that the lessons of the Civil War have been so soon forgotten.

The poem concludes with a question: “And who will bring white peace / That he may sleep upon his hill again?” The term “white peace” refers to a specific type of peace treaty that returns the warring nations to their pre-war status, with no changes to their respective territories and no exchanges of money. Lincoln, the poem suggests, will not rest until rulers stop waging war over territory, allowing freedom and peace to be restored to the world.

The only hopeful note in the poem is found in the second-to-last stanza. Here Lindsay poses an answer to his question of who will bring peace by showing Lincoln’s ideal vision for the world: it is a world in which freedom and “long peace” will stretch across “Cornland, Alp and Sea.” Lindsay chooses Cornland, a tiny town in Illinois, to represent the American heartland, while “Alp” signifies Europe, and “Sea” symbolizes the connection between the two. Significantly, in Lincoln’s “spirit-dawn” the people will return peace to the world. “The league of sober folk” refers to the Salvation Army, a charitable organization that Lindsay had been involved with during his travels. The Salvation Army played a significant humanitarian role in World War I, bringing food and other aid to soldiers both in France and at home. Similarly, the “Worker’s Earth” in this stanza is likely a reference to the international labor union known as the Industrial Workers of the World, the members of which were militant anti-war activists during World War I.

Lindsay was a champion of the common people throughout his life. By employing the character of Abraham Lincoln to lament the war in his poem and holding up the common working people as the hope for lasting peace, Lindsay again alludes to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the last line of which is “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

About Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight

Among Price’s manuscripts discovered in 2009 are two complete settings of Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight: one setting for orchestra, organ, chorus, and soloists, and the other, which we are performing today, for chorus and soloists and piano accompaniment. A third version that consists of the Introduction plus a portion of the Overture calls for a very large orchestra that would be more typical of late nineteenth century and early twentieth century orchestrations.

At present the genesis of this work leads to more questions than answers. Unfortunately Price did not include a date of composition on any of the three versions, leading to a number of questions. For example, which version did she compose first? Did she consider one of these versions to be the “final” version or would she have been happy having any of the versions performed? Why did she choose to set this particular poem to music? Did Lindsay’s poem hold any special significance for her? Price’s diary from 1947–1950, recently made available online, indicates that the version for orchestra was completed at some point between the 1914 publication of the Lindsay’s poem and the summer of 1949. Hopefully future research on Price will yield additional information about this work.

The work itself follows many conventions of the time, which were largely based on European models. Price divides the eight stanzas of Lindsay’s poem into six movements. With the exception of the first and second movements, which share the final line of the second stanza (“He stalks until the dawn-stars burn away”), each movement sets either one or two stanzas of the poem. The work opens with a short introduction, sung by the baritone soloist. Because the references to Lincoln aren’t fully evident in Lindsay’s poem until the third stanza, Price uses the first two lines of the third stanza (“A bronzed, lank man! His suit of ancient black, A famous high top-hat and plain worn shawl”) to introduce the main character of the poem, Abraham Lincoln. The extended overture that follows, like the overall work, consists of a number of different sections, each with distinct characters. The overture is in a three-part ABA form. The D major outer sections feature a march-like melodic idea that is characterized by rapid changes of key and contrasting ideas. The inner “B” section is in D minor and features a slow, languid melody and thick, colorful harmonies that are reminiscent of many slow-tempo African-American spirituals.

The Overture segues directly into the first movement, which introduces the chorus. The relatively slow-moving vocal lines, which are frequently in unison, reflect the “portentous” character of the opening stanza. (“Portentous” describes a grave or serious matter.) The second movement consists of two main sections: a baritone solo followed by soprano soloist and chorus. The third movement (“He Cannot Sleep”), sung by the baritone soloist, begins with an extended dream-like introduction that is reminiscent of French Impressionist music of the early twentieth century.

The fourth movement (“His Head is Bowed”) sets the fifth and sixth stanzas of the poem. Like the second movement, this movement consists of two contrasting ideas. The first section of the movement is set to the first two lines of the fifth stanza. (“His head is bowed. He thinks on men and kings. / Yea, when the sick world cries, how can he sleep?”) Price creates a sense of suspense and impending doom through the use of a minor key, sharp dissonances, and the repetition of a single note. The remaining six lines of these two stanzas portray the horror of wars that are initiated by the powerful, but whose cost is largely borne by the poor and powerless. The faster tempo and rapidly moving lines vividly reflect chaos and turmoil inherent in the text.

The fifth movement (“He Cannot Rest Until a Spirit-Dawn Shall Come”) is the only optimistic stanza of the Lindsay’s poem. The movement is in C major and opens with a soaring melody in a lilting triple meter that is sung by the soloist with a brief interjection by a trio of women’s voices, which represent the “spirit-dawn.”

The final stanza of Lindsay’s poem contains two main thoughts that Price sets as separate sections within the concluding movement. The first idea (“It breaks his heart that kings must murder still, That all his hours of travail here for men / Seem yet in vain”) presents a rather bleak outlook. Price emphasizes the senseless slaughter of innocents by adding sharp dissonances to the word “murder,” which she repeats three times in a row. One wonders whether this line of the poem was particularly resonant for an African-American woman living during a period of time when the lynching of innocent black men was a common occurrence.

The final stanza concludes with a question that suggests a sense of hopelessness for the prospect of peace: “And who will bring white peace / That he may sleep upon his hill again?” Price, however, strikes a much more optimistic tone, setting the final movement in the upbeat key of D major (the same key as the Overture). The main musical idea, a confident march-like melody, is first heard in the piano introduction. This melody then becomes the subject of an extended fugue, sung first by the altos, and followed in turn by the sopranos, basses, and tenors. Price’s decision to end the work with a fugue clearly recalls European models going back to the Baroque era where fugues often marked the end of a work or the end of major sections of works. By Price’s time, however, fugues had largely fallen out of favor. The composition of a fugue is a technical challenge that only the most skilled composers would attempt, and Price’s able use of this form in the final movement makes this work as a whole all the more remarkable. Price concludes the movement with a number of repetitions of “peace,” creating a sense of longing and hope for a future peace.

George Gershwin (1898–1937)

Jacob Gershwine (pronounced “Gersh-vin”) was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1898, the second child of Russian and Lithuanian immigrants. Although Jacob was an honored family name, he quickly came to be called George. Gershwin himself changed the spelling of his last name when he became a professional musician.

Growing up in the Yiddish theater district, George attended many plays and acted in bit parts. At age ten, he began playing piano on the instrument his parents had purchased for his brother, Ira, who had showed little interest in it. George soon began studying classical piano technique and composition with leading musicians in New York. When he was 15, George dropped out of school to plug songs for a music publishing firm on Tin Pan Alley. He published his own first work at age 17 for which he was paid 50 cents. At that time, he also began to arrange, write, and record hundreds of music rolls for both Aeolian Company and Standard Music Rolls. His own first commercial success was “Rialto Ripples,” written in 1917.

Two years later, his song “Swanee” (lyrics by Irving Caesar) became his first big hit on the national scale, aided, in part, by its performance by Al Jolson. His first major classical piece, “Rhapsody in Blue” (1924), firmly established his own signature style in which he successfully blends a number of different musical genres in what has been called a “revolutionary” manner. Rhapsody remains his most popular work.

Despite his early success, Gershwin wanted to continue to improve and develop his music. In the mid-1920s he applied to study with Ravel and Boulanger in Paris, both of whom refused to teach him, believing that in-depth studying of classical music would ruin his jazz-influenced style and would dilute his stylistic genius. Nevertheless, his stay in Paris inspired his orchestral work, “An American in Paris” (1928).

Throughout his career, Gershwin collaborated successfully with several lyricists, including his brother, Ira, to produce a large compendium of beloved music for stage and film. His compositions include orchestral works, opera, folk opera, film scores, and many popular songs that have become standards of the Great American Songbook. Gershwin died in 1937, at the age of 38, from a malignant brain tumor. To this day, he remains one of the most influential American composers of both classical and popular music. The Andover Choral Society performs some of his most memorable popular songs and jazz standards in today’s concert.

Composer biographies and analysis of Vachel Lindsay’s poem by Janet Barnes, Lynn Champion, and Pamela Bloomfield. Analysis of Price’s Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight by Michael Driscoll.