05 May 2007

Copland: Late Piano Works

Midday Thoughts (1944/1982): Apparently derived frm sketchs from the 1940s and put together by a then very frail and ill Copland in the 1980s, this is a quite lovely and profound ABA piano sketch, triumphant in a restrained way, like the Fanfare for the Common Man but half-asleep. Beautiful phrases and clear architecture. Very lovely.

Proclamation: (1973/1982): Copland's last thoughts in any medium, this is a harsh dissonant succession of chords without any real break. Trapped music. In the style of the orchestral works of the 1960s. Notable more for its curiousity value than its deep content.

At this point I have heard almost all of Copland's work with the exception of some of the film works, which will eventually come from Netflix's warehouses to my DVD player. It has been a good experience, far more pleasant than some of my other traversals.

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03 May 2007

Copland: Threnodies 1 and 2

Threnody I: In Memoriam Igor Stravinsky (1971): Over a repeating three voice canon in viola, cello and violin, a flute plays an impasioned melody conjunct but wide ranging in harmony. Transparent and beautiful.

Threnody II: In Memoriam Batrice Cunnigham (1972): For Alto Flute and string trio in a somewhat sustained ABA form, the center tries to get off the ground into something fast but falters then picks up into some harsh chords before settling. These two threnodies - such an interesting title choice - are both quite elegant and beautiful, the Stravisky one moreso. I think playing them one after another is not a good choice. Simple use of a tone row throughout.

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17 April 2007

Copland: Various

Some more of the ongoing Copland listening. We've gotten into the late, strange stuff. Copland was coming down with Alzheimer's I believe and found composing to be quite difficult.

Down a Country Lane (1962): Beautiful, gentle piano miniature in the Fast-Slow-Fast ABA that is typical. The orchestratd version shows Copland's genius for orchestration. I get a sense that there is something restrained in the emotions, very New England throughout - the title is a bit precious.

Emblems for Wind Ensemble (1964): Copland was asked to write a work for wind ensemble and created somedthing that sounds as if it were the beginnings of the Midwest Wind Ensemble sound. The work is enjoyable, particularly in the slow pastoral opening, if not the jazzy middle section. However it is problematic. At about the middle of the opening section, he quotes Amazing Grace - which he claims just "fit" with the harmonies that he had already written - the hamronization is lovely, but the choice and the justification is not believable. Appearing as it does again at the end, after the jazzy section it almost seems to make a curious symbolic justification that I'm not sure if Copland meant - the jazzy sound associated as it has been in twentieth-century classical music with transgression redeemed by the hymn music - could this reflect on Copland post-McCarthy? Hard to say. I think we need to conceive of Copland's music, especially his non-Proclamatory music, as programmatic, consider the ballets, the film music.

In Evening Air (1967): A gentle short piano piece that makes no demands of the listener or really the performer's interpretive abilities. Simple, elegant, with repetitions of materials in shifted harmonies. Apparently the music derives from Copland's score to "The Cummington Story"

Inscape (1967): Frankly a ponderous affair filled with tension filled contrapuntal phrases that alternate with each other each seeming like it will ead to somewhere else, but never really going anywhere it seems. It's not an unpleasant piece, it just seems to feel like it is trying to say something rather important but never really does, like a bad lecturer. There are some tensions I think between Copland and the twelve tone language you can see the escape routes - the chords over which a disjointed violin line runs as if to use up the remainder of the pitches, the big twelve note chords - the first (at the opening) of which is impressive. Copland also claims to have used 2 rows, which in mjy opinion pretty much negates the aestheticism of row use. Said to be the glory of Copland's later years, I would disagree, though I don't have a suitable candidtate to take the mantle.

Ceremonial Fanfare (1969): There's not much to say about this brief fanfare. As a fanfare goes it works well, the harmonies are clean as per Copland, the melodies clear and speaking well through the instruments, probably also fun to play. In three sections of which the last is a culmination of the first - the first is simply canonic presentation of the melody. This is melody driven music.

Inaugural Fanfare (1969): This fanfare on the other hand is really quite strange - again ABA, but the B section is a dialogue of two trumpets marked "from afar" The main theme makes use of a Lydian fourth and the overall feel of the work is not all that triumphant, it’s a begrudging vidtory, ambivalent almost. The opening is striking with the percussion trading to the brass and then a lovely sound of two glockenspiels and flutes, But we never get full integration and the fanfare never really takes off. However compare this with an earlier fanfare like the Jubilee Variations or the Fanfare for the Common Man and we see a real decline in quality.

Happy Anniversary (1969): For Ormandy's Seventieth - relatively straightforward arrangement of Happy Birthday - tune is not modified - accompaniment builds up pandiatonic cluster chords as the song progresses. Lively and probably sounds good with the orchestra (no recording) but not as interesting as Stravinsky's "Greeting Prelude"

Duo for Flute and Piano (1971): Copland returns to his classic style in this piece for flute and piano. Opening is beautifuly diatonic, fast section seems very dry after a lamenting off-kilter second movement with minor and major thirds (more like the proclamotroy Copland).

Three Latin-American Sketches (1959-1972): Three movments based on various Mexican styles: Estribillo, and Danza de Jalisco bookend a slow evocative Mexican siesta scene. Makes extensive use of the trumpet as soloist. The second movement has a languid beauty in which almost everything can easily have the tendency to lounge on the beat, though that could be the recording, I think though playing it more straight would really dullen its effect. The final Danza is sparingly orchestrated at times, effectively, I think. Perhaps this next comment is informed by my knowledge of Copland's biography at this point, but these seem to be orchestrated in a spare manner, as if extra notes were too much trouble, or else there is an influence of the late twentieth century solo insturment sound present. Begun in 1959 and assembled and completed in 1972.

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06 March 2007

Copland: Music for a Great City

Music for a Great City (1964): Developed from the film music for "Something Wild" Dedicated to the ommissioning orchestra and its players (a nice move I think on Copland's part - who wouldn't want to play well a piece dedicated to the players themelves). As film music I bet it works quite well, as concert music not so much so. These aren't set pieces in the way that the Grover's Corners music is in Our Town, rather the movements seem to be fragments, often more rhythmic than melodic, sometimes breaking into sound effect - as in the "Subway Jam" movement, or else background - the "Night Thoughts" movement. Interestingly, it reflects the fashion of film music from the 1960s, I can't put my finger on it, but there is something about the sound of it.

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05 March 2007

Copland: Connotations

Connotation (1962): Portentious, loud, self-important orchestral work commissioned for the opening of Lincoln Center. In Copland's proclamatory style and using twelve-tone technique. Trying to make a big statement, but coming off as a windbag. This sounds like Krenek. When Copland uses the twelve-tone technique he tends to be more contrapuntal, as in the Quintet, or percussive as in the Variations (which while not twelve-tone per se share the microscopic attention to pitch class), here it is no different. One comes out of this work wondering just what is so important that Copland is ranting about for 19 1/2 minutes. In some ways, perhaps he was trying to shock, to bring some attention to himself, given, as biographers note, he was falling out of fashion in the 1960s. Nonetheless, it still sounds like Copland and the harsh dissonance is not that shocking. It strikes me with twelve-tone music, particularly of this sort, that a conductor isn't really sure what to do with it - does the cnductor wrk to bring out the row, as if it were a theme, or to work around it, as if it were an ostinato. The row stands in a difficult balance of these two modes of expression. In some ways, the row itself is completely unnecessary, it is just a scale.

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24 February 2007

Copland: Nonet

Nonet (1960): For the Dumbarton Oaks series, and dedicated to Boulanger. Seldom heard work for three each violins, violas and cellos. In typical Copland fast-slow-fast form with the final fast a varied reprise of the opening. Homophonic chorale like opening in quite beautiful nine-note harmony. Doesn't have the robustness of much of Copland's fast material, more lyrial and pastoral than barn-dancy. Doesn't strike me as if he is using twelve-tone techniques, but there is clearly an importance placed on intervallic relationships. Copland commented on the elegiac sound saying that the bottom heavy insturmentation lends itself to such sentiment.

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12 February 2007

Copland: Orchestral Variations

Orchestral Variations (1957): A return to the Piano Variations can be read in any number of ways, which I'l get into in a moment. This is an orchestration of the modernist Piano Variations of 1930, one of the more proclamatory pieces of Copland filled with bell-like minor ninths throughout the writing. Where the piece really bothers me is not in its clangorous theme, or in the brilliant orchestration that Copland does here, but rather in the intensely sectional nature of the variaiton structure. There is little change of phrase length and the listener is constantly hearing always in the forefront this annoying little note progression, the regularity beomes, well, regular and one hears Copland and/or this melody trapped in this phrasal box. The return to it at this histirocal point is particularly interesting. This was always one of Copland's more note-sensitive scores and in the climate of rising serialism, we can see it as Copland wanting to jump on the bandwagon, which we'll see later with his other "serial"-type scores, or else by the commissioning agency, in this case, the Louisville orchestra, wanting to present a "serial"-type-sounding piece with the imprimatur of an established conservative name. From the political perspective, if we assume that Copland had the progressive views, and that they are reflectied in his "modernist" scores and that there was an important outlet for progressive art as opposed to socialist art - which Mark Carroll outlines well in his study we can see Copland renewing his political advocacy of progressivism in a return to this note-y work.

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10 February 2007

Copland: Dance Panels

Dance Panels (1959, revised 1962): In seven "movements". Copland at his most Copland-esque. Long pastroal melodies, bouncy tunes, a snare drum here or there. This is film music without a film, the "dawn" opening on a single pitch with offstage horns, ending with a return of the opening material after a deus ex machina trumpet solo that brings the becoming dissonant festivities to a jarring halt and the dawn rises again. Underplayed and enjoyable. The panel technique allows him to experiment with several different moods, which I'm coming more and more to realize is the essence of Copland's language. Consider even his first piece, the terrible piano work: The Cat and the Mouse, in a way this is similar and stands rather separeate from the more "abstract" proclamatory works like the Piano/Orchestral Variations. The orchestration is consistently ovely an here is an interesting point to be aware of - in COpland's music we are hearing a sound orchestrated for the instruments, instead of the instruments playing the music - its a subtle difference, but one that I will come back to. There is the blending of sounds that is so French - back to the Impressionists and forward to the Spectralists - that differs in so many ways from a contrapuntal style as in, say Carter or Ruggles.

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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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