Copland: Symphony No.3

Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
Symphony No.3

1.Molto moderato - with simple expression
2.Allegro molto
3.Andantino quasi allegretto
4.Molto deliberato - Allegro risoluto

From Ives’s use of hymn tunes and marches, through Gershwin’s ambition to take jazz and Tin Pan Alley to the concert hall, to Torke’s appropriation of rock dynamics, American composers seem to be consistently concerned with how music for mass consumption and more academically-minded sounds might relate to each other. This is not something that is so common in Europe, where until very recently there has been an unspoken consensus that, the odd essay comparing the Beatles and Schubert aside, the two shall never meet.

Aaron Copland brings all these cultural issues into sharp relief. A Jewish New Yorker like his contemporary Gershwin, he studied in Paris with the most influential European teacher of the first half of the twentieth century, Nadia Boulanger. This elicited suspicion from many back in America: a composer steeped in old-world traditions composing modernist music. But he attracted as much disdain from the European elite when he turned his attention to writing deliberately populist works like El Salón México, a clever and deceptively simple piece that convinced most of the avant-gardists who might have been his allies that he had irredeemably debased himself.

This is more a reflection of differing political and social concerns on either side of the Atlantic than anything else. While depression in the 1930s made Europe a place of gathering storms as Nazism and Fascism rose up, in the United States a relatively optimistic air was building thanks to Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, and this sense of rebuilding the nation was reflected in the arts generally. It is surely not coincidental that as Copland perfected his “American” sound in the early 40s with his ballets Billy The Kid, Rodeo and Appalachian Spring, Rodgers and Hammerstein were doing much the same with Oklahoma, which premièred in 1943.

This resurgent sense of national pride went hand in hand with a renewed interest in the grandest musical forms, and the symphony became a fashionable medium for an American composer to express himself in; the 1930s saw a slew of grand orchestral declarations. When it became known that Copland was engaged in writing a symphony the expectation was for something epic. He himself would later wryly admit that he “certainly was reaching for the grand gesture.” Work began on the symphony in 1944 and continued for two years.

The grandest gesture in what is Copland’s largest orchestral work is probably his most famous music: the Fanfare for the Common Man, which heralds the finale. In fact the fanfare existed before the symphony, written to a commission for the Cincinnati Symphony in 1942. It is sometimes suggested that the fanfare is bolted on to the symphony, but this is unfair: Copland had it in mind as the symphony’s climax very early on. The extraordinary fame that it has achieved since gives us a warped perspective on it. At the time it would have seemed to Copland that it was just an occasional piece that would soon be forgotten, but too good an idea not to use in a new context.

The fanfare’s contours are reflected in the whole work, from the grand opening, which gives that sense of wide open spaces that Copland had perfected in the ballets he had written in the early 40s. Anyone familiar with Appalachian Spring will recognise the dancing rhythms and pastoral interludes that characterise the second movement. The third movement reflects some of the concerns of the opening, beginning with a brooding version of a theme heard on trombone in the first movement, before gradually speeding up to a central climax so dramatic that the listener could be forgiven for thinking that it marks the start of the finale. But things die down again, and when the finale does follow on directly, it begins tentatively in the flutes before the full brilliance of the fanfare breaks out. From here the music takes flight before reaching a conclusion whose grandeur and significance was summed up by Leonard Bernstein: “The Symphony has become an American monument, like the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial or something.”

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