Music in Lincoln’s White House

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Abraham Lincoln was one of our great music lovers-in-chief. Though he couldn’t sing or play any instruments himself, he surrounded himself with music during the turbulent 1860s, seeking solace from the turmoil of the Civil War.

En route to Washington for his first inauguration in 1861, the 16th President of the United States stopped in New York to catch the American premiere of Verdi’s A Masked Ball. When the curtain rose for the second act, the entire cast sang the “Star-Spangled Banner” and a huge American flag was lowered from the proscenium—a fitting welcome for the President-to-be.

Lincoln took this love of opera with him to Washington, where he attended approximately 30 performances during his brief four years in office. In fact, Lincoln was the very first president to invite an opera singer to perform in the White House. Soprano Meda Blanchard sang “Casta Diva” from Bellini’s Norma, accompanying herself on a piano that was reportedly out of tune. Lincoln also had Friedrich von Flotow’s opera Martha staged for him during his second inauguration, which is the only example of an inaugural opera in U.S. history.

As much as Lincoln admired performances by trained musicians, he was especially moved when soldiers and civilians rose their voices in song. At a time when there were no barricades around the Executive Mansion, people used to gather right on the White House lawn to sing spirituals, hymns, and patriotic songs like George F. Root’s “Battle Cry of Freedom” and Julia Ward Howe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” This music was powerful. It captured the spirit of the time and of the American people—their strength, their courage, their sorrow, and their hope.

Read more about Lincoln’s love of opera here.

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