The Promise of Living: Copland for Labor Day

Copland, The Tender Land

The Promise of Living, the soaring finale of Aaron Copland’s 1954 opera, The Tender Land, seems vaguely appropriate for Labor Day. Its libretto by Horace Everett (a pseudonym for Erik Johns) evokes the dignity and meaningfulness of labor. Honest work, in this case cultivating the soil of the American heartland and reaping the blessings of a rich harvest, is part of a balanced and fulfilled life:

The promise of living with hope and thanksgiving
is born of our loving our friends and our labor.

The promise of growing with faith and with knowing
is born of our sharing our love with our neighbor.

For many a year we’ve known these fields and known all the work that makes them yield.
Are you ready to lend a hand? We’ll bring in the harvest, the blessings of harvest.

We plant each row with seeds of grain, and Providence sends us the sun and the rain.
By lending a hand, by lending an arm, bring out from the farm,
bring out the blessings of harvest.

Give thanks there was sunshine, give thanks there was rain.
Give thanks we have hands to deliver the grain.
Come join us in thanking the Lord for his blessing.
O let us be joyful. O let us be grateful to the Lord for His blessing.

The promise of ending in right understanding
is peace in our own hearts and peace with our neighbor.

O let us sing our song, and let our song be heard.
Let’s sing our song with our hearts, and find a promise in that song.
The promise of living.
The promise of growing.
The promise of ending is labor and sharing our loving.

The Tender Land, set in the 1930s around the spring harvest and the high school graduation of its main protagonist, Laurie Moss, wasn’t a success. Originally written for the NBC Television Opera Workshop, it was rejected by network producers, perhaps because of weaknesses in its plot and characters. It premiered at New York City Opera on April 1, 1954, with Thomas Schippers conducting and Jerome Robbins as director; but the work, which was intended for the intimacy of television, didn’t translate well to the stage. Still, this glistening excerpt, performed by Dawn Upshaw, gives a sense of the quality of the score.

Putting aside The Tender Land’s rejection by NBC, it’s amazing to consider that there was a time in the United States when commercial network television executives commissioned prominent composers to write television operas. These were the days when NBC and CBS each had their own in-house orchestra. NBC Opera Theatre, which operated from 1949 to 1964, produced Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, Lukas Foss’ Griffelkin, and Norman Dello Joio’s The Trial at Rouen, among other operas.

In 1958, Copland gathered up the opera’s neglected music and created an orchestral suite (listen to the complete score here). Below is the orchestral version of The Promise of Living from a 1960 Boston Symphony recording, with Copland conducting. The music seems to awaken slowly, like early morning sun hitting a dewy pasture. Growing out of a single, sustained horn pitch, it unfolds into a majestic hymn of thanksgiving. The final chord encompasses the full range of the orchestra, from the lowest bass notes to the shimmering high strings, suggesting the eternity of a wide open prairie landscape:

  • Find Copland’s 1960 Boston Symphony recording of The Tender Land Suite at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find a recording of the complete opera at Albany Records.
  • Find Dawn Upshaw’s album, The World so Wide at iTunes, Amazon.

Three Musical Portraits of Cuba

An art deco travel brochure from the 1920s.
An art deco travel brochure from the 1920s.

 

Cuba is home to one of the world’s richest musical melting pots…the vibrant convergence of west African and European (especially Spanish) musical traditions over 500 years of history. From rumba and son cubano to Afro-Cuban jazz and salsa, this Latin musical stew often features dizzying rhythmic complexity while retaining a suave sense of “cool.” Clave rhythm, the source of this “cool” complexity, gives Latin music its unique sense of swing. It’s a rhythmic groove that remains elegantly breezy while keeping us constantly off balance.

Last week the United States and Cuba formally restored diplomatic relations for the first time since 1961, reopening long-shuttered embassies. As we mark this historic event, let’s listen to three musical portraits of Cuba. We’ll start with the music of George Gershwin and Aaron Copland: the sounds of Cuba from the perspective of an American visitor. Then, finally, we’ll plunge into the delirious world of Mario Bauzá’s Afro-Cuban jazz.

Gershwin in Havana

Cuban Overture grew out George Gershwin’s holiday in Havana during July and August of 1932, (according to Gershwin, “two hysterical weeks…where no sleep was had”). Originally titled Rumba, and first performed at New York’s Lewisohn Stadium for a crowd of 18,000, Cuban Overture explodes with a larger-than-life, fun-loving vitality. It also embodies an endearing spirit of innocence and optimism, twentieth century American qualities we hear in much of Gershwin’s music.

Spicy Cuban rhythm fills the piece. The percussion section is augmented with claves, maracas, guiro, and bongos. In the score, Gershwin requests that these instruments be placed in front of the conductor’s stand. The overture’s main theme was influenced by Ignacio Piñeiro’s Échale Salsita (listen here). Other influences include the Spanish folk song, La Paloma

As carefree as Cuban Overture sounds, it was actually a step towards greater compositional sophistication and maturity for Gershwin, who would die five years later at the age of 38. In 1932, in an effort to hone his technical skills as a composer, Gershwin began studying with Joseph Schillinger, a sought after, Russian-trained music and mathematics teacher. Cuban Overture was the first piece Gershwin wrote after working with Schillinger. It’s interesting that, with pieces like An American in Paris and Rhapsody in Blue already under his belt, Gershwin felt compelled to seek out Schillinger. No art is produced with inspiration alone. Technique and craftsmanship are essential elements. But, amazingly, with or without Schillinger’s influence, we still hear the essential spirit and genius of Gershwin shining through in the music.

Here is a 1962 recording with the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra conducted by Howard Hanson. Listen to the repeated, swinging bass line which occurs throughout the piece and the layers of interlocking rhythm. In the slow middle section, I love the lush warmth and occasional “old school” portamenti in the strings on this recording:

Danzón Cubano

Written in 1942, Danzón Cubano is Aaron Copland’s musical postcard from Cuba. Again, these are the sounds of Cuba from the perspective of a visitor. As Copland explained,

I did not attempt to reproduce an authentic Cuban sound but felt free to add my own touches of displaced accents and unexpected silent beats.

You may be familiar with the orchestral version of this piece. Copland originally scored it for two pianos. Here is that version, performed by Copland and Leo Smit:

Mario Bauzá and Afro-Cuban Jazz

Mario Bauzá (1911-1993) helped to bring Afro-Cuban sounds to New York jazz. He performed with Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, and others. Here is his band’s take on El Manisero  (“The Peanut Vendor”), a hit song by Moisés Simons, first recorded by Rita Montaner in 1928.

Notice the off-balance sophistication of the clave rhythm. In the opening, the bass establishes a fairly square and straight-forward rhythmic pattern. But listen to what happens around this rhythm as other instruments enter. The saxophones enter on a different beat than we might expect, shifting the emphasis and suddenly changing the way we perceive the underlying bass groove.

Additional Listening

Appalachian Spring: Bernstein and the LA Phil

R-4004737-1412008444-8505.jpegAaron Copland’s 1944 ballet score, Appalachian Spring, has already been the subject of two Listeners’ Club posts (here and here). But let’s return to this American masterwork once more and listen to Leonard Bernstein’s 1982 Deutsche Grammophon recording with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. You would be hard pressed to find a more exciting and soulful interpretation of the Appalachian Spring Suite, including Copland’s own rendition and Bernstein’s slightly faster “definitive” 1961 recording with the New York Philharmonic.

Appalachian Spring begins and ends with two overlapping chords which blend into hazy pandiatonic harmony. It’s a sound which seems to emerge from the American landscape: expansive, fundamental, and eternal. Time seems suspended. But then a new, blindingly bright voice suddenly enters, jolting us out of our daydreams (3:09).

Bernstein’s performance is infused with a sense of dance, rhythmic intensity, and sparkle. We hear this towards the end, around 20:13, as Simple Gifts develops into a sparkling rhythmic motor. There are also moments of sensuous repose. Listen to the way the music takes us into new, distant territory around 17:20. A few moments later, we turn a corner and suddenly find ourselves back at the opening. But this time, there’s a sense that the opening pandiatonic chords are reawakening and trying to remember. After the final climax of the piece subsides, we’re left with a moment of veiled introspection (22:24).

These are a few of the details which place this performance a few notches above so many other excellent recordings of Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Take a few minutes and listen. Then, if you feel inspired, leave a comment in the thread below and share your own thoughts.

  • Find this recording at iTunes, Amazon
  • Hear a live performance of the complete ballet score with Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony.

Old American Songs

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Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs are full of ghosts. The collection of folk melodies Copland arranged in the early 1950s, at the request of Benjamin Britten, evokes memories of, and nostalgia for, the distant past. It’s easy to get a similar feeling taking in the small slices of rural American landscape visible in brief glimpses from a moving car…an old dilapidated barn, a picturesque village church, the leafy solitude of an obscure roadside cemetery…

The first set of songs opens with The Boatman’s Dance, an 1843 minstrel song which originally might have sounded something like this. It’s what surrounds the tune (the piano accompaniment) that makes these settings so extraordinary. The opening chords of The Boatman’s Dance are a proclamation, expansive like the wide open spaces of the American frontier. The irregular rhythm of the bass line which follows sparkles with the fun-loving, bawdy bustle of an Ohio river town in its heyday.

The second song, The Dodger, is a campaign song. In Songs of Work and Protest, Edith Fowke and Joe Glazer offer this history:

…”The Dodger” originated with the Western Farmers during the period of agrarian protest following the Civil War. It is linked specifically with the presidential election of 1884 when the Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland, was running against Republican James Blaine. Cleveland had won the support of progressives by his fight against Tammany Hall in New York, and “The Dodger” was apparently used as a campaign song to belittle Blaine.

The next song is the folk ballad Long Time Ago. It’s followed by Simple Gifts, the Shaker melody heard towards the end of Copland’s ballet score, Appalachian SpringThe final song in the set is the comic children’s song I Bought Me a Cat. (Listen to William Warfield’s performance here).

Here is American bass Samuel Ramey’s recording with pianist Warren Jones:

The second set of songs begins with a lullaby, The Little Horses. Listen to the searching voice which emerges in the piano around the 0:32 mark.

Next, we hear the revivalist song Zion’s Walls. Copland drew on this melody for the finale of The Tender Land, an opera intended for television but ultimately rejected by the NBC Television Opera Workshop. (Listen to The Promise of Living from Copland’s orchestral suite from the opera).

The Golden Willow Tree, the hymn tune At the River, and the minstrel song Ching-a Ring Chow finish out the set. At the River’s noble procession of chords and confidently ascending bass line suggest expansive monumentality.

  • Find William Warfield’s performance on iTunes
  • Find this recording on Amazon

Walter Piston’s Second Symphony: A Neglected Mid-Century Gem

Walter Piston’s Second Symphony, written in 1943, is one of those mid-twentieth century American musical gems that deserves to be heard more often. Following its National Symphony Orchestra premiere in March, 1944, conductor Hans Kindler declared that the symphony,

is without even the shadow of a doubt one of the half dozen great works written during the last ten years. It sings forever in my heart and in my consciousness, and it does not want to leave me.

American composer Walter Piston (1894-1976)
American composer Walter Piston (1894-1976)

A year later, the work was performed by the Boston Symphony, NBC Symphony and New York Philharmonic. But, with the exception of a few recordings, it has fallen largely off the radar.

The unfair perception of Walter Piston as a dry, Ivy League academic and later a twelve tone composer (as heard in his Eighth Symphony) may be partly to blame. Born in Rockland, Maine in 1894, Piston served for many years on the faculty of Harvard University. His students included Leroy Anderson, Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter, John Harbison, and Daniel Pinkham. As a music theorist he is remembered as the author of a series of respected textbooks: Principles of Harmonic Analysis, CounterpointOrchestration, and Harmony. Aaron Copland described Piston as, “one of the most expert craftsmen American music can boast.” But as conductor Gerard Schwarz noted, with the advantage of hindsight, Piston’s music goes beyond craft:

In some ways Piston was the dean of American music. But as a result of his intellect and his association with the university environment, he was considered to be a somewhat dull, academic composer. For anyone familiar with Piston’s music, it is clear that he is neither dull nor academic, but incredibly imaginative and innovative. It is true that he uses classic forms, but with his own language. I have studied most of his output and I have come to realize that he was a master, an inspired composer.

Beyond a neoclassical structural purity, the Second Symphony doesn’t conform easily to any distinct stylistic category. At moments it may remind you of the sonorous chorale-like orchestration of Piston’s German contemporary, Paul Hindemith. As with Hindemith, who could play almost every instrument and wrote a wide array of sonatas, Piston had a deep understanding of orchestration. “I’ve always composed music from the point of view of the performers” he said. As the second symphony unfolds, it’s easy to sense the instruments coming to life, suggesting distinct personas. At times, they engage in a soulful conversation (as in the second movement’s lamenting dialogue between the clarinet and flute).

As Carol J. Oja points out in this article, Piston was an “internationalist” who did not actively seek to develop a distinctly “American” musical style. But there are moments in the Second Symphony when it’s easy to catch a hint of the blues. Additionally, there’s a feeling of Ragtime swing in the spunky melody that pops up around the 2:00 mark in the first movement. The fugal counterpoint that follows sparkles with a fresh, innocent mid-century American vibe. Despite these lighthearted adventures, the first movement ends with a solemn brass chorale, sinking back into the atmosphere the music seemed to be trying to escape in the opening.

The second movement emerges out of a single horn tone. A lonely bassoon line spins into a short canon in thirds with the low strings. By the time the clarinet begins its soulful, extended statement, we already have a sense that the music is striving, reaching higher towards some unknown goal. The flute picks up where the clarinet leaves off, taking the conversation to a new level of intensity. The movement alternates between collective anguish and serene beauty (listen to the glistening violin entrance at 15:30).

Here is Gerard Schwarz’s recording with the Seattle Symphony, originally released on the Delos Records label in 1992:

  1. Moderato 0:00
  2. Adagio 10:07
  3. Allegro 21:51

Additional Links

  • View the New York Philharmonic’s score to Piston’s Symphony No. 2 with Leonard Bernstein’s markings.
  • Listen to the Seattle Symphony’s recordings of Walter Piston’s Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Symphonies.

The Manipulative Power of TV News Music

newsreelFrom the ominous minor second “shark motive” in Jaws, to E.T.’s soaring “Flying Theme,” to the terror of Psycho’s blood-stained shower, music plays an obvious role in heightening the drama of our favorite movie scenes. Music has the unique capability to transcend the literal and transport us into the world of metaphor, a place where fundamental truths are most deeply and directly experienced. In some cases, music may be the most important dramatic ingredient. For example, video footage of a crocodile could be set to frightening music or to a Scott Joplin rag. In one case we would feel a sense of danger, while in the other we would perceive the same crocodile comically.

Television news also uses music to subtly manipulate our emotions. News music’s patchwork of “opens,” “rejoins,” “bumpers,” and “closes” not only establishes a branding identity for the news station (as the no nonsense, “reporter as private detective” sound of the 1970s local news theme, Move Closer to Your World does), but also, more troublingly, occasionally heightens the drama of the news itself.

Walter Cronkite’s first CBS Evening News broadcast contained no music. Apart from this teletype bumper, CBS would not add music until 1987. Throughout the 1970s NBC used a series of emotionally neutral themes, culminating with this simple open, featuring the NBC motive. It was John Williams’ lush, soaring orchestral NBC theme, The Missionwhich became a game changer for network news music in 1985. For the first time, the broadcast began with a dramatic “headline bed”, which suddenly gave added urgency and tension to the anchor’s words. CBS quickly responded with its own “headline bed”, set a half step higher than NBC’s, probably with the goal of sounding subliminally more urgent to indecisive viewers who might be flipping between networks as the newscasts opened. ABC World News Tonight also went a half step higher than NBC with its “headline bed.” In 1991, CBS raised its “headline bed” another half step, trumping the urgency of both NBC and ABC.

John Trivers, Elizabeth Myers, and Alan James Pasqua’s orchestral CBS Evening News close skillfully hinted at the open intervals and orchestration of Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, while featuring delightfully bubbling pizzicato lines. Meanwhile, John Williams’ Meet the Press theme, The Pulse of Eventscrackled with the contrapuntal intensity of a late Mahler scherzo.

All of the networks crafted glitzy music to accompany coverage of both Iraq Wars (listen to ABC’s, CBS’s, and NBC’s). These soundtracks for war blur the line between reality and illusion in troubling ways. When war becomes entertainment, the citizen becomes a passive spectator. Political ads from Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America to Barack Obama’s stadium infomercial similarly use music to manipulate emotions.

William Schuman’s Newsreel in Five Shots

Before television, movie newsreels used music to blend news, propaganda, and entertainment. Watch this newsreel from the 1937 Hindenburg disaster and this clip from the Battle of the Bulge in the Second World War.

American composer William Schuman (1910-1992) originally wrote Newsreel in Five Shots for concert band in 1942. The music accompanies imagined newsreel scenes: a horse race, a fashion show, a tribal dance, monkeys in the zoo and a parade. Schuman described the piece, saying:

[I] thought how amusing it would be to imagine these events and write music to go with them, so I did. . . . It was great fun to do—kind of a joke. Lukas Foss loves that piece. . . . He never played anything of any importance that I wrote, but he loved that.

Here is the conductor Lukas Foss’ recording of Newsreel in Five Shots with the Milwaukee Symphony:

Pass the (Deflated) Football

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The Listeners’ Club isn’t a sports blog, so I have no insight into this weekend’s Super Bowl matchup between the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots. I’ll also leave it to the Columbia University physics department to investigate allegations that the Patriots gained an unfair advantage by using purposely deflated balls.

But, in honor of Super Bowl 49, here is Pass the Football from Leonard Bernstein’s 1953 musical, Wonderful Town. The lyrics were written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. In any other songwriter’s hands this would have been a fairly straight forward comic song. Bernstein seems to have been incapable of passing up an opportunity to have fun with witty musical details. The song opens with Coplandesque voice leading. A reoccurring chromatic scale which jumps wildly between octaves accentuates the humor:

Music and Humor

images-6Leonard Bernstein masterfully explored the subject of humor in music in one of his Young People’s Concerts. The episode takes listeners on a musical tour from Haydn and Rameau to Brahms, Mahler, Prokofiev and Shostakovich and offers insight into why we find certain music funny.

To this day, no one has done more for music education than Bernstein. Watching these programs, which originally aired on CBS in the late 1950s, you can sense Bernstein’s passion and sincerity. The title of the series seems misleading because the adults in the audience were clearly learning as much as the children.

Bernstein’s episode inspired me to think about other examples of musical humor. Mozart’s A Musical Joke and Dmitri Kabalevsky’s The Comedians quickly come to mind. Here are a few more. In the thread below, add your own favorites.

Haydn’s Jokes

Franz Joseph Haydn’s music is full of humor, from the “Farewell” Symphony’s long, final diminuendo to a jarring fortissimo in the otherwise elegant Andante of the “Surprise” Symphony. Like all comedy, the element of surprise is a key ingredient. Throughout his life, Haydn was employed by aristocracy. He seems to have enjoyed keeping his employers on their toes with occasional, unexpected jokes.

The String Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 33, No. 2 is nicknamed, “The Joke.” Listen to the final movement, played here by the Buchberger Quartet and you’ll hear why:

Comic Voices in Early Beethoven

Last month, I pointed out some of the humor in Beethoven’s Second Symphony. The final movement of Piano Concerto No. 1, a giddy, wild romp, contains similar comic elements. Unlike the elegant rondos of Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven’s humor comes with a ferocious, gruff growl, especially in the thunderous orchestral tutti sections. There are also jarring accents on the “wrong” beats.

Listen to the clownish conversation between low and high voices (starting around 26:18 and continuing through 26:42). You’ll hear this back and forth dialogue throughout the movement (in the orchestra at 28:42 and 29:01).

Beethoven’s sudden modulations to remote keys keep our ears reeling. Following the cadenza at the end of the movement (31:06), think about where you expect the music to resolve and listen to the surprise we get instead. Beethoven has one more practical joke up his sleeve in the final bars of the concerto, so turn up your volume and listen closely…

In the first movement, listen to the way the opening “long, short, short, short” motive develops. This musical DNA pops up in subtle ways (the pizzicato in the development section beginning around 7:50). One of my favorite moments comes at the end of the development section as we anticipate the recap (9:26). Our expectation grows as the resolution we expect is delayed. Then, suddenly, the recapitulation hits us over the head.

Here is Evgeny Kissin’s recording with Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra:

  1. Allegro con brio (0:00)
  2. Largo (14:33)
  3. Rondo. Allegro scherzando (25:11)

Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity

English composer Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite, The Planets, Op. 32, was written between 1914 and 1916. Each of the seven movements depicts the astrological qualities of a planet in the solar system. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity evokes characters as well as jokes and fun-loving games. You can hear this between 0:58 and 1:20, in the big, low voice of the strings and horns, followed by the light, dancing woodwinds.

Here is a recording by James Levine and the Chicago Symphony:

Burlesque Copland

Let’s finish up with Burlesque, the fourth movement of Aaron Copland’s Music for the Theatre. Entrances in the wrong keys and constantly changing rhythmic meters are part of the humor of this piece. We can almost imagine the clownish characters and their routine. In this case, it’s probably relatively low humor. The piece ends with one last practical joke…