Copland’s Early Orchestral Works Kick Butt!


COPLAND: An Outdoor Overture. Sympony No. 1 for Large Orchestra. Statements. Dance Symphony / BBC Philharmonic Orchestra; John Wilson, cond / Chandos CHSA 5195

Those who have read my Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music, under Composers – C, will know that I feel Aaron Copland to be somewhat overrated. Yes, he was a solid composer, but after he changed his style in the late 1930s to a more popular and populist one, quoting or simulating American folk songs and dances, he became more formulaic and less interesting to me. I do like his jazz-based music, El Salon México and especially his 1950s opera The Tender Land (a highly underrated masterpiece that needs to be performed more frequently by American opera companies), but when I hear a piece like the opener of this CD, the 1938 Outdoor Overture, it just seems very pleasant if solidly-written, tending towards background music. Yes, it’s peppy, and there are certainly features of interest greater than his Fanfare for the Common Man, Rodeo, Appalachian Spring and Lincoln Portrait, but it’s really not much better than a lot of similar works by other composers and in fact not as creative as some of John Williams’ better pieces.

Which is not to say that conductor John Wilson and the BBC Philharmonic do not play it well—they do. But for me, the real meat on this CD are the works from the 1920s and early ‘30s which follow. As Mervyn Cooke’s liner notes put it, “Newcomers to the Dance Symphony…might well be surprised by the sometimes grim, even Gothic, nature of a piece with a title more logically suggesting a carefree spirit,” and his Symphony No. 1 (1926-28) is also a more serious, less populist Copland. Originally written as a symphony for organ and orchestra in 1924, when he was still under the spell of the French modernists of that time (I would say Honegger even more so than Milhaud or Dukas), it is more astringent in harmony and much leaner in orchestral texture. When it was first performed in its original form in the U.S. in 1925, with none other than Nadia Boulanger making her American debut playing the organ part, conductor Walter Damrosch told the audience after the performance that a composer who could write such a piece at age 23, “within five years he will be ready to commit murder!” The quote was picked up and circulated frequently in the press, even though Copland himself recognized it was just a joke directed at the “conservative Sunday afternoon ladies faced with modern American music.”

The Symphony, as I say, isn’t really all that grim, just a very good modern piece. Copland really liked the work, which was recorded in its original form by E. Power Biggs and the New York Philharmonic in 1967, but realized that not every concert hall could supply the organ necessary, so he rewrote it for orchestra alone. The second movement (“Scherzo”) was the first to be premiered in the new format, in a 1927 concert conducted by none other than Fritz Reiner. The entire revised piece was given in Germany in 1931, with Ernest Ansermet conducting the Berlin Philharmonic to great acclaim (and no talk of murdering people). The highlight of the piece is actually the long (ten and a half minute) “Lento” finale, a brilliant piece in sonata form that could easily be played as a stand-alone work. This is a truly great performance, bracing and emotionally committed, and should easily convert even the most skeptical listener to Copland’s early style, particularly the faster, more energetic section beginning at the seven-minute mark and continuing on through to the end. (In its original form with organ, the ending was once described by a Chicago critic as “screaming like a wild banshee which by some twist of locale has found itself at the Wailing Wall.”)

Equally interesting, and even more bracing, are the six Statements from 1932-35, one of his last such works in this style. Virgil Thomson, in an equally early review (for him), called it “A manly bouquet, fresh and sincere and frank and straightforward.” The opening section, “Militant,” is played in a granitic, bracing style that echoes Shostakovich, while the second, “Cryptic,” foreshadows such American composers as Roy Harris and Walter Piston. Slow-moving, soft brass notes and chords are heard against a backdrop of tubas and trombones. Some of this orchestration, but not this style, found its way into some of Copland’s later work. “Dogmatic” follows, equally bracing as the first movement but more lumbering than aggressive. By contrast, “Subjective” is another quiet, mysterious piece with a louder section towards the end, more conventionally tonal than many of the others. “Jingo” is based on the song The Sidewalks of New York, its familiar tune woven in and out of the structure very cleverly and artistically, and not always prominent. Oddly, the ending just fades away abruptly, whereas “Prophetic” comes across as almost enigmatic and objective in its writing, at least until the piece explodes in volume before again receding from the sound barrier.

The Dance Symphony of 1929 came about as part of a composition competition sponsored by RCA Victor records. Copland had, say the liner notes, wanted to submit his Symphonic Ode, but not being able to complete it in time he edited scenes from his weird, Gothic,unperformed ballet Grohg. The liner notes make a big deal of the “dark” quality of this music, but to my ears much of it sounded quite chipper, just in an entirely different style from Billy the Kid or Rodeo. It is most definitely dance-oriented, however, with strong, insistent rhythms and his leaner, earlier mode of orchestration. (As it turned out, the winner of this competition was Atterberg’s Seventh Symphony; the Dance Symphony was one of five runners-up that got $5,000 apiece, and premiered in 1931 at a Philadelphia Orchestra concert conducted by Stokowski.) When this work was programmed by Artur Rodzinski with the New York Philharmonic in 1937, the orchestra members hated it so much that they threatened a cancellation of the concert. Copland, in turn, threatened to leave the League of Composers which was sponsoring the event. The program went on as planned. Listening to it today, one wonders where the heads of these musicians were at…but then again, this is New York City, which always pretends to be cutting edge when in fact most of the city’s musicians today are still playing music written no later than 1930, and whose present-day New York Philharmonic still thinks Carl Nielsen is revolutionary! (The orchestra balked big-time a few years ago when Alan Gilbert scheduled a series of all of Nielsen’s symphonies and many of his concerti.)

There is no question but that this is one of the finest Copland discs extant. I recommend it highly!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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