Performing Unmet Hopes: Salvatore Martirano’s L’s GA

Thomas J. Kernan

Have we secured a new birth of freedom? Abraham Lincoln’s most recognizable piece of political oratory, the 1863 Gettysburg Address, opens with the president’s reminder that the still young nation was “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Lincoln then swiftly turns from that historical claim to the reminder that the present experience was that of a nation divided in a civil war over whether this high ideal could come to pass. To conclude, he does not declare victory, in any sense—as it assuredly was yet elusive on many battlefields—but he does not even assert that the moral cause was secure. Rather, Lincoln charges his audience to join him in resolving that they would work to follow the efforts of those who had died, and thereby achieve what was truly required, a new birth of freedom.

Within the speech’s three paragraphs, Lincoln acknowledges that the enlightened cause of the new nation remained unfulfilled, yet possible through a rebirth. The national founding cause was not wrong, but it was not yet true either. Historian David W. Blight has argued that Lincoln and the period’s most recognized black abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, embraced comparable language and ideas in their 1863 speeches.[1] In this brutal year of the war, when the possibility of battlefield victory and freedom for the enslaved appeared questionable at best, both men employed a similar rhetorical effort: the nation’s founding ideals were not wrong, but they had yet to be lived. The Civil War was only to be a success if it could serve as a rebirth, a moment when the high-minded thinking of four score and seven years ago met the lived experiences of “all men” who the “new nation” said were “created equal.”

Merrill D. Peterson, in his seminal study of Lincoln memory, orients this rebirth as part of a thread of Christian thinking in which Lincoln developed a yet unknown American civic religion.[2] To this end, Lincoln would make a similar gesture in the penultimate passage of his 1865 second inaugural address, the recognizable bit of poetry, “Fondly do we hope – fervently do we pray – that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgements of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’” While many Americans have long considered Robert E. Lee’s signing of a Confederate surrender, just soon after Lincoln’s second inauguration, to be the arrival of the national rebirth, Lincoln was struck down by an assassin’s bullet before he could continue his assessment of the nation’s status.

Did we make it? Was every drop of blood repaid? Was God’s judgement favorable? Even if so, did the “new birth of freedom” take the form of a healthy and robust baby who was to be nurtured into a nation-state with which her parents would be proud? Or, as Lincoln had warned, were the ultimate sacrifices of slave and soldier in vain? In the hands of twentieth-century, Illinois-based composer Salvatore Martirano and the poet/performer Michael Holloway, who joined him to premiere L’s GA in 1968, the answer was “Have a new birth – blah, blah, blah, birth – blah, blah, blah – birth, blah, blah, blah – of freedom – wap, smack, smich, woop.”

Martirano’s composition was preceded by many other musical settings of the Gettysburg Address. As early as 1865, the Cuban composer Narciso Teller Y Arcos referenced Lincoln’s speech in preparing an international funerary ode that was first printed in Paris. In the midst of the Great Depression, Jacob Weinberg set a Yiddish translation of the speech to rebut challenges raised about the patriotism of Jewish-American immigrants. Certainly, the most recognized and performed setting of a portion of the address remains Aaron Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait (1942), which culminates not with “blah, blah, blah” but with orchestra and narrator together reaching a triumphant climax.

Martirano’s multimedia masterstroke features the choreographed role described in the score as “a gas-masked politico,” three movie projectors conveying filmic images prepared by Ronald Nameth, two-channel tape accompaniment, and Lincoln’s words adapted by the poet Holloway in a manner that they are both present but obscured throughout. The composition’s title, L’s GA, conveys that Lincoln’s charge on the Pennsylvania battlefield remains seemingly always with us, yet miles away. This title is, of course, an abbreviation of “Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address,” but Martirano never overtly asserts the full title of the speech within his composition—not in the text nor even in an imaginative program note that he prepared for a 1969 performance at the University of Connecticut. In twenty-first-century academic parlance, one might describe Martirano’s title as a deliberate erasure, but it is not. Martirano did not merely remove or eclipse some of Lincoln’s speech; he offered an update on the speech, a response to the late president. If Lincoln had provided a task that the citizens were to accomplish, then Martirano was checking in on our progress and reporting back that any “new birth of freedom” had yet to bring into existence a vibrant new being.

Martirano composed L’s GA during the Vietnam War and the height of the African American Civil Rights Movement. In that moment not only was Lincoln’s goal unmet, but these external and internal wars once again obscured any hope of having the text, majestic as it remained, ring true. The film content, frequently loud passages of tape accompaniment, and the actor’s timed gestures in the performance space all underscore the disorientation of wartime. But most striking for most who witness L’s GA is the way in which it subverts expectations of similar performed art objects: the singer, actor, or poet who portrays the “politico” delivers Lincoln’s words while wearing a gas mask. The audience does not see the individual’s face; all facial expressivity is obliterated. Not only are the address’ ideals lost in the fog of war provided by the film and tape accompaniment but the mask, the uniform, and the madly fascistic gestures prevent any possibility that the performer is offering Lincoln’s wise words as a statement of something fully realized.

Martirano goes still further to dehumanize these words from the actor by, at one point, asking him to consume helium—a step that performers can achieve with real-time sound manipulation in contemporary performances—so that his voice ascends to a significantly higher pitch and is even more unexpected. What follows is empty, absurdly hollow, profoundly clichéd beauty: time-lapse film of flowers blooming, accompanied by an egregiously over-the-top excerpt from an opera by Camille Saint-Saëns.

In crafting a musical setting of the Gettysburg Address, Martirano did as all composers attempt: he brought it into his time and place. For Martirano, in 1968, Lincoln’s hopes were, well “blah, blah, blah.” In conceptualizing how to portray the Gettysburg Address, Martirano contributed to the Lincoln musical memorial repertoire a composition that remains an enduring framework for performers seeking to challenge the notion that the nation met the hopes that Lincoln deposited on the battlefield of his day.

Thomas J. Kernan is an associate professor of music history and head of the honors bachelor of musical arts program at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts. He regularly publishes research on the musical memorialization of Abraham Lincoln, from the president’s death in 1865 to the present, a topic for which his doctoral dissertation, “Sounding the Mystic Chords of Memory,” earned the 2016 Hay-Nicolay Prize from the Abraham Lincoln Institute and Abraham Lincoln Association.

[1] David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), 414–15.

[2] Merrill D. Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 360–61.