It’s a few days late, but I thought we could use this week’s music to celebrate American music in honor of July 4th. Today, we will hear Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, performed by the National Symphony Orchestra.
Aaron Copland, often referred to as the “Dean of American Music,” did more to capture the essence of the American spirit in music than any other composer. His works include the ballet Appalachian Spring (which won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1945), the ballet Billy the Kid, the orchestral work Lincoln Portrait, and the score for the film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men.
Copland wrote Fanfare for the Common Man in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. “I sort of remember how I got the idea of writing Fanfare for the Common Man,” he wrote. “It was the common man, after all, who was doing all the dirty work in the war and the army. He deserved a fanfare.” Although the work is only three minutes long, Fanfare for the Common Man packs a serious punch. It starts with percussive drums, then features the trumpets, the French horns, trombones, and tuba in a stirring melody resembling a call to arms. You can also hear a version of the Fanfare for the Common Man in the opening bars of Copland’s famous Third Symphony (1946).
Given the season of the year we are in, I thought it might be nice to share some music about springtime. Our music for this week is Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland. This is arguably the most well-known and widely-loved piece of music ever written by an American composer.
Two years after the premier of his amazingly popular Rodeo, Appalachian Spring was written in 1944 as a ballet titled “Ballet for Martha.” Dancer Martha Graham had been commissioned to choreograph the ballet, and Copland wasn’t sure what he was going to call it. A year later, after the ballet was met with widespread success (including winning a Pulitzer Prize for the musical score), Copland created the orchestral suite that you will hear.
Appalachian Spring evokes images of rolling Blue Ridge mountains, open prairie-lands, soaring northern peaks, and youthful exploration. It captures much of the adventurousness inherent in the American ideal. Ironically, Copland wasn’t even thinking about the Appalachians when he wrote the piece. As he said, “I gave voice to that region without knowing I was giving voice to it.”
While all of the melodies in Appalachian Spring are memorable and evocative, the highlight is the unmistakable “Simple Gifts” theme that begins at 23:27. Based on the Shaker hymn by the same name, this melody was Copland’s attempt to pay homage to the Shaker influence on American culture. Since they were writing for a ballet, Copland and Graham initially chose “Simple Gifts” because of its references to dancing:
When true simplicity is gained To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d To turn, turn will be our delight ’Till by turning, turning we come round right.
This week’s music is the Allegro second movement (starting at 6:06) from Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 2.
A Mount Rushmore of American composers could include several names, but two composers in particular would have, in my view, a permanent place on the monument: Aaron Copland and Charles Ives. These two composers have arguably done more than any other figures (with the possible exception of George Gershwin) to define American classical music.
Charles Ives was an eccentric New Englander who forged a unique and powerful path into American modernism. Like the poet T.S. Eliot, Ives worked an office job (insurance salesman) for most of his life in order to support his family, composing in the early mornings and late evenings. He left us with dozens of sonatas, chamber music of all kinds, six incredible symphonies, and several immensely popular short orchestral works like “The Unanswered Question,” “Central Park in the Dark,” and “Three New England Sketches.”
Ives’ second symphony is a masterclass in quoting other musical material, from Wagner operas to American fiddle tunes. In the first movement, he quotes the tune “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean.” The second movement quotes “Bringing in the Sheaves.” Strains of “America the Beautiful” can be heard in the third movement, and the fifth movement showcases quotations of both “Camptown Races” and “Turkey in the Straw.” Other quotations include Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” overture, Dvorak’s New World Symphony, Beethoven’s fifth symphony (in the second and third movements), Brahms’ first symphony (in both the first and last movements), and even an F Minor fugue in the finale that imitates one of J.S. Bach’s three-part inventions.
This week’s music, continuing in our series on the music of great American composers, is the second movement of Amy Beach’s piano quintet in F-sharp minor, performed by a group of music performance fellows at the Tanglewood Music Center in Tanglewood, Massachusetts.
Amy Beach was born in Henniker, New Hampshire in 1867. Unlike most composers, she was almost entirely self-taught. She came to fame in a crop of American composers that included George Chadwick, Arthur Foote, and the legendary Edward MacDowell, whose name is associated with the MacDowell Artist Colony (also in my beautiful home state of New Hampshire :).
Like most American composers of this era, Beach’s writing is quintessentially Romantic, with early strains of late romantic and even pseudo-harmonic characteristics. Her piano quintet is a perfect example of this. In the second movement, which you will hear today, she blends soaring piano solos with delicate textures in the strings, punctuated by what can only be described as Charles Ives-esque harmonic undertones.
Listen for the absolutely stunning return of the cello solo at 6:40. In my opinion, this is one of the most beautiful melodies ever written by an American composer!
We are continuing our series on American composers with Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber.
Samuel Barber wrote this piece in 1936 as part of a string quartet. The legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini, upon hearing it, begged Barber to arrange it for full string orchestra. Toscanini later premiered the work with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, and it became an overnight sensation. It has become renowned as one of the most moving pieces of music in the world. It was played at the memorial services for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, President John F. Kennedy, and Albert Einstein.
This piece is powerful because of its simplicity. It is a study in the bare essentials of music. Notice how the melody is only in one instrument at a time. The rest of the instruments provide a held-out chordal background over which the melody floats. It is also powerful because of the tension that it creates. Notice how the harmony and melody never change at the same time; this tug-of-war creates rising tension as the tonal exchange escalates. For those of you who are musically trained, you’ll hear a constant tug-of-war between the tonic, the sub-dominant, and the diminished seventh (or really any form of seventh), which, as I’m sure many of you know, is a perfect formula for increasing musical tension.
As you listen, keep in mind the words from Virgil’s Aeneid that inspired this piece:
A breast-shaped curve of wave begins to whiten
And rise above the surface, then rolling on
Gathers and gathers until it reaches land
Huge as a mountain and crashes among the rocks
With a prodigious roar, and what was deep
Comes churning up from the bottom in mighty swirls.
This week’s music is “Hoedown,” one of the four dances from American composer Aaron Copland’s ballet Rodeo. I was very pleased to find a video of the composer himself conducting this piece.
Aaron Copland, nicknamed “The Dean of American Composers,” is one of America’s most well-known musical minds. He composed, conducted, and taught throughout his 90-year life, which spanned almost the entirety of the twentieth century. While he wrote many excellent classical works, such as his Third Symphony and his Sonata for Violin and Piano, it is his other works—works he referred to as his “vernacular” works—that have become iconic in the American soundscape. These include his ballet Appalachian Spring, his legendary symphonic composition Fanfare for the Common Man, and his cowboy ballets (Billy the Kid and Rodeo). If any composer has captured the American spirit in music, it is Copland.
Rodeo was the second of Copland’s cowboy ballets. It was, in his view, a recasting of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew—but with cowboys. Rodeo follows a lovesick cowgirl’s attempts to capture the attention of the lead cowboy at Burnt Ranch. Copland wrote four dance episodes for the ballet, and “Hoedown” caps off the set with a wonderfully American “yee haw”-style ending. “Hoedown” has since been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame as one of America’s most significant pieces of music.
This week’s music begins a new series on American composers. To kick things off, we will be starting with Edward MacDowell’s Piano Concerto No. 2, performed by Andre Watts with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. (My apologies for the short excerpt video, it’s the only tolerably decent video I could find. Hopefully this piques your interest and inspires you to go listen to the concerto in full :).
MacDowell is one of the most celebrated composers in American history. A Renaissance man, he was also a talented poet, painter, forester, and architect. His compositions quickly gained international acclaim. He was one of the first seven people to be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
His second piano concerto is by far his most well-known work. MacDowell himself played the premiere of the concerto in 1894, and the performance was so successful that he was immediately hired to start the music department at Columbia University. However, university life was not for him, and he resigned soon after starting the program and returned to his farm in Peterborough, New Hampshire. There is now a world famous artist colony called the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough.
The second concerto begins with the dazzling runs and thundering chords you will hear in the video above. I had a chance to play in an orchestra during a performance of this concerto, and the adrenaline rush of these opening bars is like nothing else. Watts does a phenomenal job of creating two voices – one soft and hesitant, the other powerful and aggressive.
Our music for this week – and the fifth installment in our Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music – is the famous Symphony No. 9 by Dvorak, popularly known as the “New World Symphony.”
Internationally-renowned Czech composer Antonin Dvorak emigrated to the United States in 1892 to take conservatory teaching position in New York. This was right around the time that the country was exploding with new inventions. Carnegie Hall had just been built, baseball was the country’s new favorite pastime, and steam engines were the greatest power source to yet arrive (although Henry Ford was closing in fast on his Model T). Dvorak was overwhelmed. After getting his bearings, he penned the symphony you will hear today, titling it “From the New World.”
Within months of his move, Dvorak became obsessed with the musical genre of black spirituals. He began incorporating many of these tunes into his music. For instance, if you listen closely you will hear the melody of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” in the first movement of the “New World Symphony.” Likewise, the second movement “Largo” – although not originally a spiritual – was later rewritten by one of Dvorak’s students and set to words in that genre. This melody has become so popular that it is frequently found in hymnals and other compilations of religious tradition. However, it has transcended its genre and been used for many other contexts. For instance, it was played at Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Gerald Ford’s funerals and was the inspiration for pianist Art Tatum’s 1949 “Largo Swing.”
The famous Largo (second movement) starts at minute 12:56. Michael Tilson Thomas, one of the best conductors on earth, has said that this melody perfectly encapsulates the idea of homesickness. Others have said it describes longing, and still others have said that it is the musical expression of restfulness. Regardless of what it means to you, I can assure that you won’t soon forget it.
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