29 January 2007

Copland Listening

At a certain point, I felt I would discover the music of Aaron Copland. I had known but a little of it, and knew him as a respected, and essentially enjoyable, composer - and had as one of my first CDs a recording of his Lincoln Portrait, Quiet City and Our Town Suite under Abravanel. I also found his music to be difficult to teach and wanted to see if through learning more about him, I would be able to better teach his music. I began listening, as per usual, to everything he wrote. As a companion, I used Neil Butterworth's Music of Aaron Copland an essentially descriptive catalog of the compositions laid out in roughly chronological order. I began taking notes on the music relatively recently. Again, the notes are simply impressions.

In the Beginning (1947): This is one of Copland's lesser works, though he doesn't have much for choir. It goes on too long, it seems forced, especially in the "fast" central section and it is a bit too obvious - note the pesante on the part where God makes man. It sounds very Disney and not in a good way.

Midsummer Nocturne (1947/1977): Relatively forgetable minor piano piece of Copland. Uses the two melodies in the piano stratification that is common in Copland piano music (I'm thinking of the arrangement of the theme of Our Town). Shame all of Copland's piano music is either portentious (the large scale pieces) or trite.

The Red Pony (incidental music) (1948): His music for the film really made the film come alive. Copland is in reality, it seems a very competent film composer. If we think his non-programmatic works seems academic or portentious while his ballets and film music is glorious. Also of note is the use of some folk songs that later show up in the Old American Songs - the Golden Willow Ballad for example. Also some things derivative of moments from Rodeo as well.

Preamble for a Solemn Occasion (1949): For the UN opening. Big chords, large leaps, setting up to the spoken preamble of the UN Charter, before settling in to more of the beginning. Lacking the charm of the tender Copland.

Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson (1949-1950): Spectacular settings of Dickinson. Its clear why this is a classic.

Old American Songs, Set 1 (1950): Lovely,of course, though I've always found the Boatman's dance and the I Bought me a Cat to be cloying. Copland is really embracing his Americana roots, I wonder the circumstances for this. The setting of Simple Gifts is quite different from the glorious ecstatic setting in Appalachian Spring. The recording I have with William Warfield is quite good.

Quartet for Piano and Strings (1950): A twelve-tone work by Copland, with a taut opening movement. He manages to be Copland with the technique, seems like he is trying to prove himself however as a "serious" composer.

Old American Songs, Set 2 (1952): Lovely arrangements. Less stiff than Set One, but this could be my familiarity.

The Tender Land (1952-1954): No doubt Copland failed with this opera, there is a lot going on that is unnecessary. He cuts it down seriously for the recording I have. Much of its problem is truly with the libretto, unnecessary extra storyline. Though there is much beuatiful music, particularly the Act One closer: "The Promise of Living" set to "The Praises of Zion" and which glorifies working - a communist work n o doubt.

Dirge in Woods (1954): A small and rather nice setting for high voice and piano that Copland wrote for the fiftieth anniversary of Boulanger's teaching - I was unable to get a recording. The piece alternates between astringent major-minor harmonies and a more pentatonic feel. Worth hearing.

Canticle of Freedom (1955): Large-scale choral work with orchestra. It has an enormous instrumental introduction before the choru enters singing the words of a 13th century Scots poet extolling the virtues of "freedom" It seems to be in the mass-song type style with unison lines and stirring sentiments. The orchestra constantly gives out this "Lombard" snap type rhythm in augmentation which later turns out to be the rhythm of the word "freedom" so in essence the whole work is saturated with this sentiment. Interesting to note that the same gesture is used often in the Lincoln Portrait. There are many similarities between the two - the long introduction as well. Also of note is what sort of freedom copland is refering to and here it is freedom from bondage to the land in the sense of serfdom. Not the most interesting of good piece - also some strange orchestrational choices particularly in some of the percussion use - the woodblocks, for instance as well as giving some lines to the flutes which are drowned out against the brass.

Piano Fantasy (1955-1957): Half-hour work for piano composed to the memory of the pianist William Kapell who died in a plane crash in 1953. Ruminative, serious, deeply-felt piece - I know that "Deeply-felt" is a ridiculous term, but the work sounds that way. Nevertheless one can hear clear structural sections and proportions, one gets the sense that Copland had planned out when things would happen and how they would happen. We know from the beginning that the opening chords and gestures will return at the end, it's inevitable and they do - twice. The second time they notes become signs of bells, funeral bells perhaps and the listener reflectively changes a conception of the work to an almost narrative celebration of Kapell. Which seems in a way fitting for this improvisatory in style accompaniment to a film that doesn't exist. In the more proclamatory style of Copland, and as such is informed by twelve-tone technique if not twelve-tone - Copland says he uses a ten-tone row with the remaining two tones functioning as a cadential axis. Captivating throughout. In a way one can see this in line with the modernist works of the 1930s the Piano Variations, for instance. Crist has shown that this progressive tendency ties in with an ideal of populism, though I don't recall if she speaks of the Variaitions or Fantasy specifically. However, if we consider, Copland's use of serialism, one could easily put it in league with taking these progressive techniques and allying them with a simpler language in order to help move a populist audience toward a "greater" modernism, allowing in a sense an Ivesian idea of using challenging techniques, harmonies, etc to allow music to fulfill its ethical function of uplifiting the people to new piritual heights.

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