In the Beginning
Born: 14 November 1900, in Brooklyn
Died: 2 December 1990, in North Tarrytown, New York
More than anyone else, Aaron Copland is the quintessential American composer of serious music. This drives some people crazy, for Copland was the gay Jewish son of two emigrés from Russia—not exactly Puritan stock. But for those who honor the First Amendment to the Constitution, which enshrines freedom of religion in law, and for those who read the words on the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”) and recognize that the United States is a nation of immigrants, Copland is a wonderful representative of America. It is completely fitting that “American Music Month” is November, the month of his birth.
The Copland family name was originally Kaplan, changed to Copland in Scotland during the move to America. Copland was the youngest of five children in a not especially musical family that, like Elgar’s family, lived above their Brooklyn store. But in Copland’s case the store was not a music store, but rather a department store.
Copland started playing piano when he was seven and making up music soon thereafter; he was writing it down by age 12 at the latest. Formal piano lessons began in 1913, and real composition study started in 1917. He never went to college, instead continuing composition lessons and experiencing New York’s rich cultural life: concerts, a subscription to the Met, the Ballet Russe, Isadora Duncan, and as much modern music as he could find. Copland was an avid reader as well. He lived at home, playing in dance bands to earn money.
Rubin Goldmark, Copland’s teacher, is largely unknown today but was a respected figure of the time (Gershwin studied with him very briefly); he was the first head of the composition/theory department at Juilliard. Through him Copland received a solid background, even if Goldmark was far more conservative in his tastes than Copland.
In 1921 Copland, supported by his family, headed off to France to study at the new American Conservatory in Fontainebleu, outside Paris. His composition teacher, Paul Vidal, was a disappointment by being, in essence, another Rubin Goldmark. Fortunately Copland soon met the person with whom he really needed to study, who unexpectedly was (gasp!) a woman.
Nadia Boulanger (1887–1979) was a composer, conductor (one of the first women professionals in that field, and the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic and other major orchestras), organist, pianist, and probably the most famous musical pedagogue of the twentieth century. Her education at the Paris Conservatoire included composition lessons with Fauré and Widor, and she was an organ pupil of Vierne and Guilmant. Her family was extremely musical; her singer/composer father had won the Prix de Rome in 1835, and her gifted younger sister Lili was the first female composer to win it in 1913 (Nadia came in second in the 1908 competition). Nadia composed less and less after Lili’s early death in 1918, and eventually stopped altogether. But she was brilliant as a composition teacher and was superb at helping people develop individual styles; in addition to Copland, she worked with Virgil Thomson, Roy Harris, Elliott Carter, and many others. Instruction with Copland included lessons in orchestration, score-reading, and analysis, in addition to composition. Through Boulanger (since she knew everyone), Copland encountered Stravinsky, Ravel, Poulenc, Milhaud, Villa-Lobos, members of Les Six, the aged Saint-Säens, and scores of other significant figures. Boulanger’s musical interests, which she shared with her pupils, ranged from Renaissance madrigals to the latest avant-garde works.
Copland studied with Boulanger from 1921 to 1924, years which also included extensive travel across Europe. By the time he returned to the States he had a major commission from Serge Koussevitzky (thanks to Boulanger): his Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, written for Boulanger to premiere in America . This modernist work inspired the famous statement by Walter Damrosch (cited in Howard Pollack’s magnificent biography of Copland): “It seems evident that when the gifted young American who wrote this symphony can compose at the age of 23, a work like this one...in five years more he will be ready to commit murder.”
Back in the United States, Copland now needed to earn a living. His lifelong preference was to be a freelance composer rather than a university teacher (much later in life he turned down a position at Juilliard), which meant that he cobbled together an existence from myriad revenue streams. It also meant that for many years he barely scraped by; only after World War II did he begin to earn the substantial fees that would eventually make him rich. Incidentally, he was an extremely generous person, even when he was poor (he was extremely frugal).
Copland earned money through commissions (e.g. Music For the Theatre, for chamber orchestra in 1925, the first commission ever made by the League of Composers; the piano trio Vitebsk in 1928), writing, lecturing, a subsidy from a cousin, grants (the first ever Guggenheim Fellowship for a composer, with a second following immediately after), and some teaching at the New School for Social Research from 1927–1930 and 1935–1938; this lefty bastion matched his politics well. In later years he taught occasionally at Harvard and elsewhere, and conducting became an excellent source of revenue as well.
From the beginning of his career Copland wished to improve the lot of composers, increase their opportunities and establish a true American school of composition. His efforts in this direction were many. With Roger Sessions he ran a series of concerts devoted to new music by American composers (1928–1931). He was a cofounder of the Cos Cob Press, more generous with royalties than other publishers, and he also founded the Arrow Press with Marc Blitzstein, Virgil Thomson, and Lehman Engle. He led the American Composers’ Alliance (which he helped found) from 1939 to 1945; he was active in the League of Composers; he created new music weekends at the annual Yaddo Festival. By 1940 he was Assistant Director at the Berkshire Music Festival at Tanglewood (under Koussevitzky); he headed the composition faculty there from 1940 to 1965 and was chair of the entire faculty from 1957 to 1965. His Tanglewood pupils included Barbara Pentland, Alberto Ginastera, Ned Rorem, Jacob Druckman, Samuel Adler, Mario Davidovsky, Thea Musgrave, and David del Tredici, and he was a friend and/or mentor to Leonard Bernstein, Irving Fine, David Diamond, Elliott Carter, Lukas Foss, William Schuman, and pretty much everybody who was anybody in the American compositional scheme (though some were jealous of his success and thought that he had “sold out” with his more accessible pieces). He was the first American composer to give the Norton Lectures at Harvard. Not for nothing did he become known informally as the “Dean of American Music.”
Copland had noted that Americans lacked anything comparable to Chabrier’s España or Ravel’s Bolero, two works that capitalize on the perceived exoticism of Iberia, so it is not surprising that his popular success began in 1936 with his orchestral work El Salón México, built on Mexican folk songs and named after a popular dance hall in Mexico City (Copland was a good friend of the pre-eminent Mexican composer Carlos Chávez and spent much time in Mexico). Other important works from the 1930s included his Piano Variations (1930), An Outdoor Overture (1938) and especially the ballet Billy the Kid, also 1938, choreographed by Eugene Loring for Lincoln Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan.
Compositions for the 1940s included the suite from Quiet City (1940), the Piano Sonata (completed 1941), Danzón Cubana for two pianos (1942, later orchestrated), the Violin Sonata (1942–1943), the Third Symphony (1944–1946), the Clarinet Concerto (1947–1948, for Benny Goodman), and the suite from his music for the film The Red Pony). Copland’s film writing began in the 1940s and proved to be extremely lucrative. His scores frequently received Academy Award nominations, and he eventually won an Oscar for his music to The Heiress (directed by William Wyler and released in 1949). He was later to receive a Grammy for the suite from his opera The Tender Land.
The 1940s were also the time of Copland’s biggest blockbusters, including his Lincoln Portrait (1942; Copland wrote his own text, which is the weakest part of the venture), the ballet Rodeo (1942, choreographed by Agnes de Mille for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo), and the amazing Fanfare for the Common Man (1942) and Appalachian Spring (1944). These last two call for additional comment.
Howard Pollack describes the unusual circumstances behind the Fanfare’s origin. Eugene Goosens, conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony, commissioned eighteen fanfares using brass and percussion for their 1942/43 season; each concert of the season was to begin with one of these. In addition to Copland, the eighteen composers included Goosens himself, Darius Milhaud, Henry Cowell, Morton Gould, Howard Hanson, Virgil Thomson, Walter Piston, William Grant Still, Daniel Gregory Mason, Deems Taylor, Leo Sowerby, Felix Borowski, Paul Creston, Anix Fuleihan, Harl McDonald, Bernard Rogers, and Bernard Wagenaar (ten of the works would eventually be published). Pollack goes on to describe the ways in which Copland’s composition differed significantly from those by others: his “very deliberate” tempo instead of the moderate or fast tempi in the other works, his slowness to build to full forces, his more compelling melodic lines, his choice of harmonies, the closing in a distant key, and so on. The work is so familiar to us today that we don’t normally think about its construction, but it is truly a striking and unusual work. Copland, assuming it would be forgotten, incorporated material from it into his Third Symphony (he would often take music from his lesser-known works and include it in a later piece).
Appalachian Spring, in contrast, was a work that drew attention immediately. Copland’s music accompanied the 1944 ballet by the brilliant Martha Graham, and for many listeners, Appalachian Spring is Copland’s best-known work and the composition that defines him. The title comes from a Hart Crane poem chosen by Graham because she liked the sound of it. The poem has nothing to do with the ballet per se, and the “spring” of the poem’s title refers in fact to a source of water, not the season. For Graham, however, it invoked the season.
More astounding is the fact that Copland wrote his music (which he simply called “Ballet for Martha;” he learned her title only later) for a very different scenario than that of the final ballet. Graham’s idea for the work kept changing, and continued to evolve after Copland’s music was finished. Through much of the ballet, the choreographic actions bear no resemblance at all to what Copland thought he was portraying. And yet music and dance still seem to be a perfect fit. Copland’s evocative score generated a powerful and convincing response from Graham.
Although many listeners know the music from its orchestral version, the work was scored for a chamber ensemble of thirteen instruments: flute, clarinet, bassoon, piano, four violins, two violas, two cellos, and double bass. For financial reasons, Graham required a small ensemble, and Copland’s thirteen musicians in fact exceeded her limit of twelve (the generous Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who was financing the work, approved the extra performer).
Today the most famous component of Appalachian Spring is its set of variations on a beautiful Shaker melody, Simple Gifts. In fact, the melody’s fame comes from its use by Copland; before 1944 very few were aware of it at all. The words of the song, though, not a part of the score, add a compelling counterpoint (to those who know the text) to the ballet’s story of a bride and groom beginning their married life:
’Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,
’Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
’Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed.
To turn, turn, will be our delight,
’Till by turning, turning, we come ’round right.
Appalachian Spring won both the Pulitzer Prize for music and a New York Music Critics Circle Award, and spawned various later versions by Copland: an orchestral suite, a suite for chamber ensemble (Copland approved the use of additional strings for this version), a revised version of the entire ballet for chamber ensemble, and a revised version of the entire ballet for orchestra. Copland also put together Variations on a Shaker Melody in both concert band and orchestra versions. Well, it’s truly a spectacular pieces and deserves all this attention. If you want to see a gorgeous video of a performance of the chamber version, check out Live from Lincoln Center’s “Simple Gifts: The Chamber Music Society at Shaker Village.”
The early 1950s saw important vocal works from Copland: his excellent song cycle Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson (1950) and his two sets of Old American Songs (1950 and 1952), the first set commissioned by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears and premiered by them at an Aldeborough Festival concert. During this time Copland had a Fulbright grant to Rome (1950) and then was in residence at Harvard for the 1951–1952 academic year in connection with his Norton Lectures.
In 1953 the spectre of McCarthyism invaded his life. Always left-leaning in his politics, Copland had been involved in various worker-related events earlier in his life (along with numerous other artists and intellectuals), although he was never a member of the Communist Party. But a performance of Lincoln Portrait planned for the 1953 inauguration festivities was cancelled, and Copland was required to testify twice to the House Un-American Activities Committee, in closed sessions. It is sickening to think of the twisted minds of Eugene McCarthy and Roy Cohn grilling someone who had already represented the United States twice on lengthy tours of South America, whose works captured the spirit of America in countless inimitable ways, and who was identified world-wide as the composer who most readily embodied American music.
Copland provided nicely vague answers to their pointed questions and implicated neither himself nor others; and although he had passport troubles for a while thereafter, he later received numerous honors from the government in recognition of his unique gifts to America: the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Johnson (1964), a Kennedy Center Honor from Carter (1979), a Medal of the Arts from Reagan (1986), and again in 1986 the highest civilian honor awarded by the House of Representatives, the Congressional Gold Medal.
In the later 1950s, as Copland’s conducting commitments increased, his compositional activity decreased correspondingly, and relatively few pieces from his later years are performed regularly (notable late works his Piano Fantasy completed in 1957, Emblems for concert band from 1964, Three Latin American Sketches from 1971, and the Duo for flute and piano from the same year). When Copland stopped composing he said it was as if someone simply “turned off the faucet.”
His last years were marked by severe memory loss, although he did manage a two-volume autobiography (with contributions by others) through collaboration with Vivian Perlis. He died barely two weeks after his 90th birthday.
In the Beginning
Copland wrote relatively little choral music—barely a dozen works, and two of these (The Promise of Living and Stomp Your Foot) are excerpts from his opera The Tender Land (1954). Other works include the early Four Motets (1921), What do we plant (1935), Lark (1943, commissioned for the Dessoff Choir though premiered by Robert Shaw’s Collegiate Chorale), and Las Agachadas (1942, “The Shake-Down Song”). This last was part of a commission made to multiple composers for a memorial concert for Kurt Schindler. Copland based the work on an Iberian folk song that Schindler had collected, inserting a “guitarlike refrain” of “drun de dun” at various points throughout. I sang this years ago; the treatment of the song itself is fine, but I would have been happy to lose the drun de duns. The most frequently performed “choruses” by Copland are actually arrangements by Irving Fine and others of various songs from Copland’s Old American Songs.
In the Beginning is Copland’s most substantial choral work by far. It was written for a “Symposium on Music Criticism” held at Harvard on May 1–3, 1947, and organized by A. Tillman Merritt (an aside: Merritt was a generous donor to the Harvard Music Department and the Merritt Room in the Music Library was named after him. When I was a graduate student there, I often saw him sitting in “his” room and smoking. He was not happy when the library became a non-smoking venue).
The three days of the symposium featured string chamber music on the first day performed by the Walden String Quartet, choral music on Day 2 by the Harvard Collegiate Chorale (conducted by Robert Shaw), and ballets by the Martha Graham Company on Day 3. Completely in keeping with his preference for instrumental composition, Copland asked to be part of Day 1, but ended up on the choral day. The other composers were Schoenberg, Martinu, and Piston (Day 1), Hindemith (his choral work was Apparebit repentina dies) and Malipiero, who wrote the chorus La Terra for the occasion (Day 2), and Chávez and Schuman (Day 3).
Merritt asked for a substantial a cappella work; he was interested in a Hebrew text. Copland opted instead for English (thus doing the reverse of Bernstein’s commission for Chichester Psalms, where Bernstein used Hebrew rather than the preferred English of the commissioner). Copland’s chosen text was the opening of Genesis (all of Chapter 1 and the first seven verses of Chapter 2) in the King James version of the Bible.
Copland used a standard four-part chorus, each part splitting into two at various points, and a mezzo-soprano soloist (who often gets the words of God). The published score includes a piano reduction, with the indication “Piano (for rehearsal only)” but also an asterisk leading to a statement at the bottom of the page stating “At the conductor’s discretion, the piano part may be used in performance as an aid to the singers.” But frankly, that’s for sissies.
The text-setting is overwhelmingly syllabic, with very, very few places where either soloist or chorus has an additional note to a syllable, never any more. This setting makes the piece easier to sing and to memorize, for Copland has carefully matched his rhythms to the word stress. Because the King James Bible is not written in any kind of rhymed meter, this means that the meter changes with moderate frequency. As a result, it is probably easier simply to memorize the piece (as my choir did) rather than fuss over a constantly shifting meter (let the conductor worry about that).
Although much about the work is challenging to sing, Copland crafted the work at times to ease the difficulties. Vocal parts sometimes are handed their pitches from the soloists (e.g., the very opening of the choral singing, where the altos take their D straight from the mezzo); at other times all are in unison or octaves (e.g. the choral “And it was so” at mm. 43–45). Melodic lines can repeat internal sections (alto mm. 113–118 = 119–124) or keep circling around the same intervals or pitches. But other times Copland’s (typical) unexpected harmonic shifts means that the singer simply has to remember where things are going (e.g., the shift from the D# major triad at the close of the third day’s activities (m. 128) to the D major triad used for the following “and the evening and the morning” refrain. The frequent text-painting, sometimes subtle, is a delight to observe.
The Biblical text divides creation into six days, followed by a day of rest; each of the first six days is marked by refrain “And the evening and the morning were the [appropriate] day.” Copland sets this as a musical refrain as well: homorhythmic chanting on a repeated note major triad inflected with a dissonant chord on the identification of the appropriate day (first, second, etc.) before resolving to the major triad. The triad changes for each day, continually rising over the course of the work: Cb (first day), Db (second day), D (third day), Eb (fourth day), F# (fifth day), G (sixth day). The effect is similar to that of the early modern practice of falsobordone found in Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers and similar pieces, a texture typically used for the choral chanting of psalm verses. The dissonant chord typically includes one voice moving to the lower seventh; singing that part was my first experience with that typical modal gesture.
The harmonic conclusion of the day’s activities before the refrain (always a major triad except for Day 5) is uniformly someplace unrelated to the refrain. Thus Day 1 moves from Eb to a Cb refrain; Day 2 from A to a Db refrain; Day 3 from D# to a D refrain; Day 4 from B to an Eb refrain; Day 5 from the sonority Ab-C-Bb-D to an F# refrain; and Day 6 from Bb to a G refrain. Although five of the pre-refrain sonorities are major triads, only two are in a stable root position (Day 1 and 3). Day 2 uses a first-inversion triad and Days 4 and 6 use a second-inversion triad, thus adding an element of incompleteness. As it turns out, though, once you’ve got the piece in your head, the sonority shifts seem completely normal.
The Genesis text includes other repeated phrases besides the day-ending refrain: “And it was so;” “And God saw that it was good,” and Copland sometimes ties these gestures together melodically as well. For example, the final “and it was so” (appearing at mm. 310–312) repeats the same falling third, falling seventh, rising sixth gesture that characterized the initial appearance of the phrase at mm. 63–65 and again at mm. 83–85; other statements of this text are informed by the motive as well, and there is a certain amount of motivic connection throughout the piece. The wide leaps of that “and it was so” phrase are also completely typical of Copland’s melodic writing and his open textures.
The First Day
Copland establishes his preferences right from the start. The soloist begins the work, as she does most of the other days. Her opening melodic line consists mostly of leaps, and although the meter is cut time, the very first rhythm is a triplet subdivision (when the chorus enters, the music moves to 5/4 for their second measure, back to cut time for one measure, then two measures of 5/4, and then a return to cut time. Rhythmic flexibility is thus present immediately.
Although there is no key signature, the mezzo line sounds at first as if it might be in D Major, emphasizing tonic, fifth, third, and leading tone. But the G# in m. 11 lets us know that harmonic variety will be a constant (another typical Copland trait). When the chorus enters (altos first, coming off the high D of the mezzo line, followed by the tenors, they sing a chromatic stepwise descending line that dispels any idea of a clear tonal center. Altos and tenors are in strict canon, another favorite Copland device. The switch to contrary motion between soprano and tenor is, as Howard Pollack points out, a clever way to show the division of light from darkness. With the text “And God called the light Day,” the three voice parts we’ve had so far are in homorhythm, joined by basses for “And the darkness he called Night,” and then we have finished the first day.
The Second Day
The soloist begins the Second Day over the sustained chord in the chorus. The chorus enters in imitative melodic lines of disjointed intervals and shifting harmonies, mostly in triplet rhythms. They move to homorhythmic texture on “And it was so,” and continue that way to the chordal refrain, here, as always, preceded by a rest in all voices and rendered pianissimo, both features that draw attention to this demarcating text.
The Third Day
The third day alternates textures and rhythms in the choral part: slow-moving homophony at its entrance and then quickening rhythms as the waters are gathered together. The texture switches to imitation (And God saw that it was good), and then the fast-moving solo part beginning “And God said” is juxtaposed against nicely elongated choral imitation emphasizing “And God said Let the earth bring forth grass.” When the chorus is again on its own, all parts move together, with each voice having its own disjunct rising and falling melodic line. The tempo slows and imitation returns with “And God saw that it was good.”
The Fourth Day
The fourth day begins as usual with the soloist, only this time we have a change in key signature to B Major (five sharps), a switch as well to unmetered rhythm, and a move to an allegro tempo. As the soloist sings her lines, the voice parts burst in one after the other with the single word “lights!”, sustained throughout the opening section. This was a terrific move on Copland’s part, as the effect is that of lights suddenly shining forth. The vocal lines when we get to full text continue to support this effect, for they consist largely of repeated notes from which an individual pitch that is higher or lower juts out—again, the sense of lights popping up from nowhere. The snappy tempo and rapid vocal lines make this section lots of fun to sing. For the latter part of the fourth day we move to alternation/imitation between the lower and higher voice pairs, with unexpected harmonic changes showing up, a return to meter signatures, and a firm cadence in B. Immediately thereafter the key signature vanishes, and we sing our refrain on an Eb major triad (a jolting shift from our B major cadence, but the sort of unexpected modulation frequently used by Copland).
The Fifth Day
The fifth day is entirely choral and is one of the most charming days of creation in Copland’s rendering. The tenors deliver the “And God said” text, after which the key signature changes to a pleasant Eb major and the meter to a gently rocking 6/4. Aside from an occasional Db, the day is relentlessly diatonic. The melodic lines typically form gently rising and falling waves; sopranos and altos slow their rhythm dramatically when God creates those big, slow-moving whales to join the already ponderous bass line. Everyone moves together, with much doubling, when we exhort all to “be fruitful and multiply” and so on. To match the changed nature of this day, Copland changes the rhythm of the ending refrain, maintaining the 6/4 meter (though switching back to a key signature of B major, which will hold for the opening of Day 6).
The Sixth Day
The sixth day opens gently, with piano, mezzo-piano, and pianissimo dynamics, the indication “dolce” for the soloist, and slowly falling imitative lines in the chorus for “And God said,” “Let the earth” and “bring forth grass.” The texture moves to antiphonal alternation (soprano and alto followed by tenor and bass) until the homorhythmic “And God saw that it was good,” which corresponds to a switch in key signature that eliminates all accidentals. The mood then changes completely. The tempo is “Faster (Allegro moderato)” moving to “Animando,” and the dynamic ramps up to forte and then fortissimo. In unison and octaves the chorus pounds out (“pesante vigoroso”) the hortatory “Let us make man in our image likeness...” maintaining the doublings with slight changes until the dramatic descending line on “over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Copland’s melodic lines are so often composed of leaps that this stepwise descending scale is especially powerful. The soloist then comes back in to lead another forceful soprano/alto, tenor/bass exchange, each pair initially in octaves. The aggressive writing, which brilliantly depicts the concept of “having dominion” and “subduing” the earth, leads again to another sweeping stepwise descent for “over ev’ry living thing that moveth upon the earth.”
Attention shifts back to the soloist (“Much slower;” “Quasi cadenza”) while chorus holds a sustained sonority (basses and altos on an octave F#; tenors and sopranos on an octave B). Tenor and soprano drop out; basses and altos leap up an octave on “Behold.” Basses drop out; now it is just the altos with the same octave leap on “Behold.” And then finally a quietly moving final “Behold” from the altos, but this time with the upper F# as the leading tone to G. And then the chorus is silent while the soloist (“Much slower still”) finishes her line. We return for a quiet ending to this sixth day, the last day of God’s work.
The Seventh Day
With the seventh day we begin the second chapter of Genesis. Copland moves back to a B major key signature and begins with the chorus; our first word, “Thus,” is emphasized by its lengthy note value (dotted half note; the pace is now “Slower, with serenity.”) The writing is almost completely homorhythmic until the entrance of the soloist, and the slow tempo plus many repeated notes make the text easily comprehensible. Copland emphasizes the important word “sanctified” by giving sopranos and first altos upward leaps of a tenth, a large interval in a work that has not shied away from such. We conclude our first section on a C# major triad, held under the soloist’s line (“These are the generations...”) We’re back to a section with neither sharps nor flats in the signature; the soloist is instructed to sing “rather hurriedly.”) We join her for the beginning of the closing section (now with an F# major key signature), which famously provides a version of “man’s” creation that conflicts with the one already expressed on the sixth day. But it is chorus alone that breathes life into the first human, switching from a section without key signature (“and breathed into his nostrils”) to a Gb major signature (“man became a living soul”). Yet we end, in fact, on a very firm Eb major triad (key signature notwithstanding) on a quadruple forte dynamic for our final “soul,” spaced high in all voices with sopranos soaring up to Bb for a triumphant conclusion.
Multiple recordings of this work are available. The first one I bought many years ago was a record with Copland conducting the New England Conservatory Chorus. It’s always fascinating, of course, to hear a composer conduct his own works, and Copland uses some rather stately tempos here. The chorus is a little challenged in terms of intonation—not surprising in this work whose pitch center is constantly shifting. The record also contains “Las Agachadas,” “Lark,” and the wonderful Emily Dickinson songs. Adele Addison is the soloist.
More recently I purchased a CD by the Corydon Singers; not surprisingly, this superb choral ensemble is more at home with the work, providing an elegant rendition (though to this American, it is amusing to hear their British pronunciation of the text). Catherine Denley is the mezzo.
A Personal Note
It’s amusing to contrast the treatment of Copland in three popular guides to music that I have in my library. The first is The Concert Companion: A Comprehensive Guide to Symphonic Music, a book from 1947 owned by my mother and published for the Philharmonic Society of New York. The works by Copland that it includes are Lincoln Portrait, Quiet City, El Sálon México, the suites from Appalachian Spring and Billy the Kid (all what one would expect) but also Statements for Orchestra, a composition that has pretty much disappeared from the repertoire. Overall, a generous inclusion in this American publication.
In contrast, my 1960 New College Encyclopedia of Music, published by the American company W.W. Norton but edited by the British Sir Jack Westrup and the Irish Frank Ll. Harrison, gives Copland a bare 40-word entry and lists his works as including “3 symphonies, a piano concerto, several shorter orchestral works, chamber music and ballets.” This is in 1960, mind you, long after Copland made a very considerable splash with Rodeo, Billy the Kid, Appalachian Spring, and so on.
Finally, the third edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music (1980) edited by Michael Kennedy, includes a substantial entry and a detailed list of works. This British publication by a British writer shows that one doesn’t have to be American to appreciate Copland.
I actually saw Copland once, my one close encounter with a famous person. One summer years ago, while eating lunch at the Tanglewood cafeteria, I saw someone walk by and thought “that looks like Aaron Copland.” Then I realized that it was, in fact, Aaron Copland. He looked exactly like his photos (not all famous people do).
Three of Copland’s works have a very special significance for me. The first is Fanfare for the Common Man (or what we refer to in the Music Department as “Fanfare for the Common Person.”) When I was chair of the department I decided to establish some musical traditions to signal the key points of the academic year. At 5:00 p.m. on the last day of classes of the spring semester, we now mark the conclusion of the academic year with the finale of the 1812 Overture played on the Quad in front of the main library. At noon on the last day of classes of fall semester, we now sing the Hallelujah Chorus in the entry hall of the main library. And at 8:30 a.m. on the first day of classes of the year, we now play Fanfare for the Common Man on the balcony at the front of the main library. The first year we did this, 2016, I was the conductor in my instrumental conducting debut, and because it was 2016 and I liked the symbolism, all the musicians were women (because the work is for brass and percussion, it’s much, much more common for the musicians to be all or mostly men). As someone who normally works with singers, this was a thrilling experience for me. I also learned (after the fourth horn player overslept and never showed up) that you can actually perform this work without the fourth horn. But it’s better with it.
The second key piece for me is Appalachian Spring, which was part of the music for my spring wedding. It’s about a bride and groom, after all, and as the song says, “’Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be / And when we find ourselves in the place just right / ’Twill be in the valley of love and delight”—exactly how I felt on that day more than 30 years ago.
Last of all is In the Beginning, a work that is deeply meaningful for me. Chester Alwes remarks that “performances of this rather lengthy, daunting work are best undertaken by elite choirs,” but the choir with which I sang this work was just the big college Concert Choir, not the “elite” Penn State Singers, and we did a decent job, from memory. It’s obviously not an easy work per se, but the other piece on our concert was the charming and far simpler Midnight Mass for Christmas by Charpentier, so most of our rehearsal time was spent on Copland. And I am deeply, deeply grateful to our conductor, Raymond Brown, for not dumbing down our repertoire the way too many collegiate choir directors do when they program works that are really more suitable for high school singers. Instead, he respected us as musicians (even though almost no one in the chorus was a music major; I certainly wasn’t at the time) and recognized that an important objective of a college education is to introduce students to challenging works that are unfamiliar rather than just giving them what they already know. My freshman year in college was the first time I was really exposed to serious choral music, and I am very happy that the first work that I sang in my first college concert—the work that truly started me on a life devoted to music—was, symbolically, In the Beginning.