If Abraham Lincoln Had An iPod



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To celebrate Presidents' Day, we have conjured up Abraham Lincoln, but in a less-than-presidential pose: with earbuds dangling from his ears. Classical music commentator Miles Hoffman agreed to explore the 16th president's musical tastes, as well as what music Lincoln might have chosen for his iPod, had he owned one.

The Lincoln iPod would have needed a lot of memory, as the president apparently enjoyed all sorts of music and loved opera. His love of opera apparently got him into trouble during the Civil War, when he was taken to task for attending a performance while the war was ongoing. To this, the president responded, "The truth is I must have a change of some sort, or die."

"We know that Lincoln liked the opera Martha, by Friedrich von Flotow, and had it performed during the festivities for his second inaugural," Hoffman says. "Martha is not performed very often now, and it's mainly known for one very beautiful aria, 'Ach so fromm,' where the male romantic lead, Lionel, sings a love song to the title character, Martha.

"We also know that one month before he died — on March 15, 1865 — Lincoln attended a performance of Mozart's Magic Flute at the National Theatre in Washington," Hoffman says.

Another big favorite of Lincoln's was a kind of "crossover" artist, Louis Moreau Gottschalk. A Southerner by birth, born in New Orleans, Gottschalk was a one-of-a-kind composer, a virtuoso pianist and, perhaps surprisingly, a supporter of the Union cause. One of his most famous pieces is The Union (Fantasy on Patriotic Airs). When you listen to the beginning of the piece, it sounds like any flashy, 19th-century European virtuoso piano piece. But then Gottschalk launches into the tunes we all know, treating them in his own inimitable way.

Lincoln was also partial to popular music and sentimental ballads, such as the songs of Stephen Foster. One of his favorites was an old Scottish love ballad called "Annie Laurie."

Remarkably, No. 1 on Lincoln's iPod might have been his all-time favorite, "Dixie."

"It had already been a popular song before the Civil War and came from a minstrel show," Hoffman says. "Lincoln had been quoted as saying, 'I have always thought "Dixie" one of the best tunes I have ever heard.' "

"After the war," Hoffman adds, "he is reported to have said, 'That tune is now federal property, and it is good to show the rebels that, with us in power, they will be free to hear it again.' "

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Next, on this President's Day, our own Renee Montagne conjures up Abraham Lincoln, not the way we usually see him in museums or on our money, but in a less presidential pose, with ear buds.

RENEE MONTAGNE: Yes, if Abraham Lincoln could have had an iPod, what would have been on it? Not perhaps the most burning question that's ever been asked about Lincoln, but when I put it to our classical music commentator Miles Hoffman, he certainly took it seriously. It turns out a fair amount is known about the sixteenth President's taste in music. For starters, says Miles, Lincoln would have enjoyed a night at the opera.

MILES HOFFMAN: He apparently went to many operas. He even got in trouble during the Civil War. People took him to task for going to the opera during the war, but one of the things he said was, the truth is I must have a change of some sort or die. We know that Lincoln liked the opera "Martho" or "Martha" by Friedrich von Flotow. He had it performed as part of the festivities for his second inaugural. "Martha" is not performed very often now. It's mainly known for one very, very beautiful aria, where the character Lionel, the male romantic lead, sings a beautiful love song to the title character, Martha.

(Soundbite of performance of "Martha" by Fritz Wunderlich)

MONTAGNE: That's lovely.

HOFFMAN: Isn't that gorgeous, yeah, that's Fritz Wunderlich singing by the way, one of the great tenors of the 20th century. We also know, by the way, that one month before he died, on March 15, 1865, he was at the National Theatre in Washington to see a performance of Mozart's "Magic Flute."

MONTAGNE: During his period, the 1860s, that was the romantic period in Europe.

HOFFMAN: Yes, and actually it's funny you should mention that, Renee, 'cause I always get a kick out of this. Lincoln was born in 1809, so we're celebrating his bicentenary. We're also celebrating the bicentenary of Felix Mendelssohn who was also born in 1809. Robert Schumann was born in 1810. Chopin was born in 1810. Berloiz had been born in 1803. Wagner was born in 1813, so the lifetimes of these great romantic European composers is tremendously important period in European Western musical history really directly coincides with Lincoln's lifetime. Now there is a kind of - I guess you could call him a crossover artist - who was a big favorite of Lincoln and that was Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Gottschalk was born in New Orleans. He was a virtuoso pianist, a very interesting composer.

MONTAGNE: So an American and southern by birth.

HOFFMAN: That's right, and somebody who supported the Union cause, which got him into a little bit of trouble back home in New Orleans, I suppose, but Lincoln liked him a lot. And as a matter of fact, one of Gottschalk's famous pieces was called "Union," which was a fantasy on patriotic airs. And when you listen to the beginning of the piece…

(Soundbite of music from "The Union (Fantasy on Patriotic Airs)")

HOFFMAN: …it sounds like any flashy 19th century virtuoso piano piece.

(Soundbite of music from "The Union (Fantasy on Patriotic Airs)")

HOFFMAN: You might think you were about to hear something by Franz Liszt, but then he breaks into the tunes that we all know and treats them in his own very Gottschalk way.

(Soundbite of music from "The Union (Fantasy on Patriotic Airs)")

MONTAGNE: That is a very cool version of Yankee Doodle.

HOFFMAN: But don't try it at home, Renee. I mean you really have to be able to play the piano to play these things.

MONTAGNE: But part of this is we know Lincoln liked popular songs.

HOFFMAN: Well that's - if you read the various accounts of Lincoln's tastes in music, he must have had - first of all, he would have needed a lot of memory on his iPod because he loved all sorts of music, very eclectic tastes. Apparently, his favorite kind of music was popular music, sentimental ballads. He would have loved, for example, the songs of Stephen Foster, songs like "Genie with the Light Brown Hair," and one of the songs that was apparently one of his favorites was an old Scottish ballad called "Annie Laurie."

(Soundbite of song, "Annie Laurie")

Mr. DOUG GREEN (Singer): (Singing) Her brow is like the snowdrift. Her throat is like the swan. And her face, it is the fairest, that e'er the sun shone on.

HOFFMAN: By the way, that's a beautiful version. The singer's name is Doug Green.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GREEN: (Singing) That e'er the sun shone on, and dark blue is her e'e. And for Bonnie Annie Laurie, I'd lay me down in Dee.

HOFFMAN: The lyrics aren't sad. It's just…

MONTAGNE: No, it's the tone.

HOFFMAN: Yeah, exactly, it's - he's - the singer talks about Annie Laurie has a beautiful brow and beautiful back and beautiful breasts and I'm madly in love with her and I would lay down and die for her. But he doesn't actually die in the song. So that's the good news.

MONTAGNE: What else, when it came to popular music?

HOFFMAN: Well, I'll tell you one of the funniest things when you read about Lincoln's taste in music is that one of his all time favorite songs was…

(Soundbite of "I Wish I Was In Dixie's Land")

BOB 'N' JOHN MINSTRELS (Musical Group): (Singing) Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten, look away, look away, look away Dixie land.

HOFFMAN: Now "Dixie" had been already a popular song before the Civil War. It came out of a minstrel show and Lincoln was quoted once as saying I have always thought "Dixie" one of the best tunes I have ever heard. It was great

MONTAGNE: And he didn't hold it against the South.

HOFFMAN: No, no, no, not only didn't he hold it against the south, but after the war he is reported to have said, and I quote, "That tune is now federal property and it is good to show the rebels that with us in power, they will be free to hear it again."

MONTAGNE: What a thought, "Dixie" on Abraham Lincoln's iPod.

HOFFMAN: Number one probably on his iPod.

MONTAGNE: Miles, thanks very much for joining us.

HOFFMAN: Thank you Renee.

MONTAGNE: Miles Hoffman is the violist of the American Chamber Players and Dean of the Petrie School of music at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

HOFFMAN: Where "Dixie," I have to say, is still a very popular tune.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: And for those of you who on this President Day feel we left George Washington in the dust, we cannot tell a lie. We did.

INSKEEP: But don't despair, because we did not neglect our first president on our website. You can hear Renee and Miles talk about some of the music that George Washington heard. And of course, you'll also find a list of the songs you've heard in this story. It's all at npr.org/music. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Ari Shapiro.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.