“There was a major struggle going on in Lincoln’s life, and I’m going to try my best to bring that struggle to this piece,” said world-renowned minister, singer and orator Wintley Phipps.
He has sung before six U.S. presidents over the course of his career, and next weekend he’ll return to St. Louis to recite the words of President Abraham Lincoln as the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra performs Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait.
The program’s three-night run at Powell Hall (Sept. 20-22) will include St. Louis American Night at the Symphony, which will take place on Saturday, Sept. 21.
“The music is almost a soundtrack of struggle, pain and triumph, and it flows so beautifully,” Phipps said. “Not only with the struggle, pain and triumph of the Civil War – but the struggle, pain and triumph of Lincoln’s life.”
The performance will feature some of Lincoln’s most noted speeches and writings – including The Gettysburg Address.
“I hope the audience comes away with a musical memory – because when a memory includes music there is something much deeper,” Phipps said. “And when you hear an orchestra as gifted as the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra as they provide the musical soundtrack for some of the most amazing words ever penned, I believe it will create a memory that is with you for life.”
In the nearly 150 years since Lincoln’s death, romanticized views have emerged and resonated regarding his historic tenure as president during the most tumultuous time in U.S. history.
“We just see him as the clean-cut president who abolished slavery – and it wasn’t that easy,” Phipps said.
“With the struggle of this Civil War, there was a parallel struggle going on in Lincoln’s heart and I want to try to bring that pathos to this experience. A lot of people don’t realize the personal struggle that he was going through. I’m going to try my best to bring that struggle to this piece.”
In the midst of his internal conflict, President Lincoln invited black leaders to the White House to inform them that he really believed that America was a whites-only country and the best opportunity and best hope for slaves and the descendants of slaves would be to go back to Africa.
He faced unyielding pressure from Frederick Douglass and Douglass’ abolitionist mentor William Lloyd Garrison to end slavery, but he was torn on the issue as the nation fought against itself.
“Ultimately, he made the decision to free the slaves and he thought that decision would preserve the union,” Phipps said. “He showed that through the pain of war this nation will not perish – and was one of those people who ended up giving up his life for the survival of this nation.”
Because of Lincoln’s ultimate sacrifice, Americans have since been able to say “one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” with conviction and authority. And although he didn’t write the words to our “Pledge of Allegiance” (which came along 40 years after his death), he personified them with his actions.
“My hope is that they will feel that we are celebrating Lincoln and his words and feel the connection to history and feel the connection to the pain and struggle of their forefathers,” Phipps said.
“I’m trying to provide much more than the words. I’m trying to provide them with a feeling and a connection to the history from which Lincoln’s words were born. You know how you can say ‘hallelujah,’ but you can say ‘hallelujah’ in another way that makes almost a soul connection? I’m trying to make that soul connection.”
St. Louis Symphony will present Copland’s Lincoln Portrait featuring Wintley Phipps from Sept. 20 – Sept. 22. St. Louis American night at The Symphony will take place on Sat., Sept. 21 at 8 p.m. at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 N. Grand Blvd., 63103. For more information, call (314) 534-1700 or visit www.stlsymphony.org/stlamerican.