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).
To finish our series on music for the organ, we will be listening to the second movement of Aaron Copland’s Symphony for Organ and Orchestra. My apologies for the lack of a live performance in today’s video.
Widely considered the greatest American composer of all time, Aaron Copland wrote music that defined the ethos of the United States of America. His famous Third Symphony, his ultra-famous “Appalachian Spring,” and his mega-famous “Fanfare for the Common Man” are featured every July 4th by orchestras around the country. Yet Copland did not write only orchestral music; he was also open to experimenting with unique orchestrations and uncommon instrument selections, as evidenced by his Symphony for Organ and Orchestra.
Copland wrote this symphony in 1924 while studying in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, who many consider to be the greatest composition teacher to have ever lived. The legendary Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Sergei Koussevitsky asked Copland to write an organ symphony in which Boulanger herself would solo as the organist. Though not a fan of the organ, Copland agreed to write the symphony.
The second movement, which you will hear today, is a broad, burly Scherzo that seems to have been inspired by Copland’s classmate in Paris, the great Igor Stravinsky. Listen for the irregular note groupings and uneven accents that Copland sprinkles throughout the movement to give it a jolting, punchy style. In his words: “The Scherzo was my idea of what could be done to adapt the raw material of jazz.”
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 “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.
We are at the end of our countdown! And what a journey it’s been! We’ve covered over four centuries of music in these 25 posts, ranging from J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos to Samuel Barber’s Adagio and everything in between. I thought it only fitting that we end with one of the most famous compositions ever written by an American composer – the “Hoedown” from Aaron Copland’s ballet Rodeo.
Copland composed Rodeo in 1942. He had previously written a western-style ballet called Billy the Kid that had been met with only moderate success, so he was wary of writing another. However, he was convinced when the Hollywood choreographer Agnes de Mille told him that Rodeo would essentially be “the Taming of the Shrew – with cowboys!” “Hoedown” has since become such a core piece of American musical heritage that it was recently inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
The ballet consists of five sections. First, there is “Buckaroo Holiday,” which introduces the Wild West context of the ballet and the main character, known as Cowgirl. Second is “Corral Nocturne,” in which a lovesick Cowgirl wanders an empty corral at night. Third, there is “Ranch House Party,” which contrasts a rollicking dance theme with a more pensive clarinet line in order to portray the loneliness felt by Cowgirl despite her many friends. Fourth is “Saturday Night Waltz,” in which Cowgirl falls in love with a cowboy named Roper. Finally, there is the “Hoedown,” which is what we will hear today. This section of the ballet is meant to portray the happiness and exuberance of love as well as the boundless energy of the Wild West legend surrounding the ballet as a whole.
I hope you enjoy this final installment in our Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music series, but more importantly, I hope you’ve benefited from this series. Perhaps it has helped you grasp the unbelievable breadth of music that is included within the small phrase “classical music.” Perhaps it has introduced you to new music that hadn’t heard before, or maybe it was a stroll down the memory lane of “greatest hits” that you hadn’t dug up in a while. Or perhaps it has helped you narrow your tastes a bit and given you a more nuanced understanding of what it is about classical music that appeals to you. Either way, I hope you have benefited from this series and have had some fun along the way.