Fanfare for the Common Man

Aaron Copland at the piano
Aaron Copland at the piano

In honor of Labor Day, here is a great performance of Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, featuring the New York Philharmonic brass and percussion sections with conductor James Levine.

In 1942, as the US entered the Second World War, Cincinnati Symphony music director Eugene Goossens commissioned eighteen composers to write fanfares. The title of Copland’s Fanfare was inspired by a speech, given by Vice President Henry Wallace, called Century of the Common Man. A few years later, the same music found its way into the final movement of Copland’s Third Symphony. 

The spirit of this piece embodies something uniquely American. The unison trumpet voice emerges out of the solemn percussion, suggesting the bravery and dignity of the individual. It reaches into the highest register, as if aspiring to something mythical and unattainable. Then we hear two voices, the trumpets and horns, and finally the trombones and tuba.

Listen to the power and ring of overtones which result from perfectly focused intonation:

So long as the human spirit thrives on this planet, music in some living form will accompany and sustain it and give it expressive meaning.

To stop the flow of music would be like the stopping of time itself, incredible and inconceivable.

-Aaron Copland

Are We Forgetting How to Listen?

Unknown-87The world is becoming increasingly saturated with information, but arguably less thoughtful. That was the topic of a recent opinion piece in the New York Times. In Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain, Daniel J. Levitin writes about the increasing amount of information our brains are trying to process through e mails, tweets, Facebook and other technology. All of this crowds out daydreaming, which he cites as the true source of creativity:

Daydreaming leads to creativity, and creative activities teach us agency, the ability to change the world, to mold it to our liking, to have a positive effect on our environment. Music, for example, turns out to be an effective method for improving attention, building up self-confidence, social skills and a sense of engagement.

At same time, writers such as Chris Hedges and Henry Giroux suggest a similar trend in education, documenting an attack on arts and literature-based classical education in favor of standardized testing. On the college level, liberal arts are under attack. In this environment, it suddenly seems less crazy when an NPR host openly questions the value of Shakespeare.

All of this makes me wonder if we’re in danger of forgetting how to slow down and really listen to music. Since the advent of recordings, there’s more music around us than at any time in history. Background music encourages us to tune out, a phenomenon which troubled Aaron Copland. To really listen requires focus and attentiveness. The more times you hear a piece, the more you may get out of it.

Concerts are social and communal experiences, but when the lights go down, the listener engages in a personal relationship with the music. Orchestras have been engaged in initiatives to perform in unusual venues where the audience is up close and personal. These initiatives have value, but when it comes to focused listening, there is no substitute for the “frame” of the darkened concert hall.

The 40,000 year old flute which was discovered in the Danube Valley suggests that music is as old as humanity, possibly pre-dating language. The voices have something to say to us. Let’s put down our cell phones and really listen.

Howard Hanson and the Sounds of the Wide Open Prairie

The wide open spaces of the Nebraska prairie.
The wide open spaces of the Nebraska prairie.

More than any other composer, Aaron Copland is credited with establishing the virtual soundtrack of the American West. Listening to Copland ballet scores such as Rodeo and Billy the Kidor his music for the film The Red Pony, instantly evokes images of wide open prairie spaces and the rough and tumble adventure of a mythical frontier. These associations have been re-enforced by countless film scores which generously borrowed Copland’s sound (the opening of Elmer Bernstein’s score for The Magnificent Seven is one small example). In reality, Copland grew up in Brooklyn and never saw the West. But his music still embodies something big, bold, and uniquely American.

Copland wasn’t the only American composer to draw upon inspiration from the prairie. Occasionally, cinematic sonic landscapes can also be heard in the music of Howard Hanson (1896-1981). Born in Wahoo, Nebraska to Swedish immigrant parents, Hanson was director of the Eastman School of Music for forty years. In my earlier post we heard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 and music from the opera, Merry Mount. 

Hanson’s music has more than a few layers of Scandinavian influence, but underneath all of that, I hear the majestic sound of the Great Plains. Listen to the second movement (Andante tranquillo) of Hanson’s Third Symphony and see if you agree.

This is Gerard Schwartz and the Seattle Symphony:

The long, sustained chords in the trombones and tuba under the sweeping string lines create a feeling of endless, expansive vistas and suggest the noble, eternal beauty of the land. John Barry used the same sound for the film score of Dances With Wolves (listen here, here and here for comparison).

“America” in Simple and Compound Time

Chita Rivera in West Side Story
Chita Rivera in West Side Story

Conductor, composer, pianist, educator, music philosopher…Leonard Bernstein’s whirlwind career was a complex mix of these versatile roles. Perhaps as a result, when it came to Bernstein’s Broadway music, outside influences were constantly creeping in, from West Side Story’s Copland-like Somewhere Ballet sequence and the dueling-keys of the Finale (a reference to the final bars of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustrato a hint of Puccini in the soaring and harmonically searching Lonely Town from On the Town. 

Bernstein couldn’t resist writing a 12-tone fugue for West Side Story’s Cool, a sly tip of the hat to the atonal concert music of composers such as Schoenberg and Berg, and the last thing you would expect on the popular Broadway stage. The Cool Fugue’s disguised tone row may be a great metaphor for what was arguably Bernstein’s greatest accomplishment: the ability to break down barriers for a whole generation, demystify “difficult” music, and show a wide audience that classical music is really just “cool.”

Bernstein most obviously broke the traditional Broadway mold in the area of rhythm and meter. The songs of West Side Story are far removed from the traditional “boom-chick” 32-bar Tin Pan Alley style. While reflecting on writing the lyrics for West Side Story, Stephen Sondheim has said, “one of the things I learned from him was not always necessarily to think in terms of 2-, 4- and 8-bar phrases.”

For an example, listen to the complex Latin cross-rhythms in the opening of America. There are four distinct rhythmic layers. By the time the bass pizzicato enters, our sense of downbeat and upbeat is delightfully unstable. But keep listening, and you’ll hear America’s real rhythmic innovation: alternating measures of 6/8 time, a compound meter based on a feeling of three (three eighth notes filling out two beats) and 3/4 time, a simple meter based on a feeling of two (two eighth notes for each of the three quarter notes). The two rhythmic “feels” fight each other, suggesting a musical melting pot akin to the ethnic melting pot at the heart of the song:

Alternating time signatures2.gif

Looking back on West Side Story’s earth shattering opening night on Broadway in September, 1957, Sondheim remembers that the audience sat through the first half of Act 1 with disturbing reverence, as if they had forgotten they were at a musical. It was Chita Rivera (Anita) and America which brought the audience to life, and provided the right emotional release at a crucial moment in the story.

In celebration of the lead up to Independence Day on Friday, let’s listen to the original Broadway cast recording of America. Keep an ear out for the irregular rhythm outlined in the bass line and pay attention to the way it fits with the other voices. Notice little details like the flute line, suggesting “tropical breezes” (0:27) and later an exotic bird song from the jungle (0:48). At times, you may be reminded of Aaron Copland’s El Salón México:

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Ballet for Martha

Appalachian Spring-Martha GrahamAppalachian Spring is a ballet about freedom and endless possibility…the joy and terror of the blank slate at the heart of the mythical American pioneering spirit. The story centers around a young, newly married couple and the building of a farmhouse on an open plot of land in early 1900s rural Pennsylvania. It’s easy to sense a longing for a mythical America of wide open spaces, which had long vanished by 1944 when Aaron Copland and Martha Graham created Appalachian Spring. At the same time, the ballet explores universal themes. There is a tension between the freedom of youth and the grounding of experience. Here is how Copland described the piece:

The bride-to-be and the young farmer-husband enact the emotions, joyful and apprehensive, which their new domestic partnership invites. An old neighbor suggests, now and then, the rocky confidence of experience. A revivalist and his followers remind the new householders of the strange and terrible aspects of human fate. At the end the couple are left quiet and strong in their new house.

Last month I offered a few thoughts on the music of Appalachian Spring and a unique performance by students at the University of Maryland. Now let’s watch a 1959 film of the complete ballet, featuring choreographer Martha Graham in the role of The Bride. Copland wrote the music under the working title, “Ballet for Martha.”

Here is part 2, part 3 and part 4.

Appalachian Spring at UMD

Unknown-41A recent University of Maryland School of Music student performance of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring is gaining well deserved attention. The performance was unique because it defied almost all of the conventions of the typical concert experience. There were no chairs or music stands onstage and there was no conductor. Instead, the 25-minute-long work was performed by memory and the musicians not only played, but incorporated elements of dance and motion created by Baltimore choreographer Liz Lerman. The Washington Post critic called it, “one of the standout performances of my many years in Washington.”

In 2012 the school offered a similar performance with Debussy’s sensuous Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. The concept is similar to recent Broadway theater productions of shows such as Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, in which actors on stage also played instruments.

In this piece, the Washington Post’s Anne Midgette suggests that visual elements are an important ingredient to building new audiences:

What part does movement have in musical performance? Musicians seem uncertain — or unaware. On the one hand, it’s a new truism that classical music concerts “need” a visual element to captivate new audiences (“Classical music must, in order to survive, introduce visual elements into its presentation,” wrote Patricia Handy in her program notes for Augustin Hadelich’s ostensibly theatrical “Tango, Song and Dance” program at the Terrace Theater last week).

But how much truth is there in Midgette’s “new truism?” Statements such as these, part of a constant and often assumption-based media drumbeat that “classical music is dying”, seem dubious. Copland’s Appalachian Spring and other great music, when performed well, will always have an audience. The expressive power of music lies in the fact that it’s fundamentally about listening, not watching. Audience members who lack the attention span to really listen will miss the true experience. It’s the challenge of music education to teach audiences how to listen. Exposure to music at an early age is an important part of this education.

The University of Maryland’s exciting and heartfelt performance is interesting for what it is: a creative way to blend dance and music into a new kind of performance art. In this case, it may be especially successful because Appalachian Spring was written as a ballet. For the students, who gained a deeper understanding of the way the piece fits together and experienced it as chamber music, there is also value.

Here is the complete performance:

Ballet for Martha

Premiering in 1944, Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring was written for choreographer Martha Graham, who danced the leading role. It was originally scored for a chamber orchestra of 13 instruments. Listen to the original version here. Copland gave the piece the simple working title, Ballet for Martha. Later, after the music had been written, Graham suggested Appalachian Spring, a reference to Hart Crane’s poem, The Bridge:

O Appalachian Spring! I gained the ledge;
Steep, inaccessible smile that eastward bends
And northward reaches in that violet wedge
Of Adirondacks!

From its opening pandiatonic chords, Appalachian Spring embodies a distinctly “American” sound. Rob Kapilow offers fascinating insights about the way the piece develops out of these chords and why they evoke the wide open spaces of the American frontier. The incorporation of variations on the Shaker melody, Simple Gifts, suggests a nationalism similar to the use of Russian folk songs in Stravinsky’s ballet music.

In this rare recording of Copland rehearsing Appalachian Spring with an unknown orchestra, we hear the composer urge musicians to play passages with less sentimentality, finding a more honest, “American” sound. The clip offers valuable insights into what Copland had in mind in terms of tone color, articulation and balance.

If you’re looking for a great recording of this piece, I recommend Leonard Bernstein’s 1983 recording with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Medea’s Dance of Vengeance

Jason and Medea, Carl Van Loo, 1759
Jason and Medea, Carl Van Loo, 1759

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between Greek mythology and a modern-day soap opera plot. A perfect example is the story of Medea and Jason, recounted in a play by Euripides from 431 BC. Jason marries Media, but leaves her for Glauce, daughter of Creon, the King of Corinth. Medea gruesomely avenges Jason’s betrayal by killing their children.

This story was the subject of American composer Samuel Barber’s 1946 ballet score for Martha Graham. Graham’s company had premiered Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring two years earlier. Listen to Barber’s complete score here.

Barber explains that the ballet went beyond the story to reflect the underlying timeless emotions:

[quote]Neither Miss Graham nor the composer wished to use the Medea-Jason legend literally in the ballet. These mythical figures served rather to project psychological states of jealousy and vengeance which are timeless. The choreography and music were conceived, as it were, on two time levels, the ancient mythical and the contemporary…As the tension and conflict between them increases, they step out of their legendary roles from time to time and become the modern man and woman, caught in the nets of jealousy and destructive love.[/quote]

Later, Barber adapted music from the ballet for Medea’s Dance of Vengeance, Op.23a. He wrote a short introduction in the score:

[quote] The present version, rescored for large orchestra in 1955, is in one continuous movement and is based on material from the ballet which is directly related to the central character, Medea. Tracing her emotions from her tender feelings towards her children, through her mounting suspicions and anguish at her husband’s betrayal and her decision to avenge herself, the piece increases in intensity to close in the frenzied Dance of Vengeance of Medea, the Sorceress descended from the Sun God. [/quote]

Let’s listen to a recording by Marin Alsop and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra:

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There’s something almost cinematic about the opening of this piece. It immediately establishes a distinct mood in the way a film score would underscore an opening scene. Beginning at 0:59, consider each solo voice’s unique persona, from the flute, clarinet and oboe to the string interjections. Can you hear a sense of anxiety slowly creeping into this virtual movie soundtrack? Does the music conjure up specific images or just feelings?

At 8:20, listen to the obsessive furry of the repeated piano line. Notice how this deranged line falls in on itself rhythmically at 9:40. The piece ends in a frenzy of madness. At what point do passion and love cross the line to insanity?

[quote]Medea: “Look, my soft eyes have suddenly filled with tears:
O children, how ready to cry I am, how full of foreboding!
Jason wrongs me, though I have never injured him.
He has taken a wife to his house, supplanting me…
Now I am in the full force of the storm of hate.
I will make dead bodies of three of my enemies–
father, the girl and my husband!
Come, Medea, whose father was noble,
Whose grandfather God of the sun,
Go forward to the dreadful act.”[/quote]

-Euripides

Teaching Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein

In addition to composing and conducting, Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was one of the greatest music educators of all time. Starting in the late 1950’s, Bernstein educated and inspired a national television audience with his New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts. Later, in 1976 came The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at HarvardHis message was consistent: classical music isn’t stuffy or hard to understand. It’s fun and it’s something everyone can enjoy.

In Teachers and Teaching, Bernstein talks about his own education from Serge Koussevitzky, Dimitri Mitropoulos and Fritz Reiner to Aaron Copland. The documentary, made in the final years of Bernstein’s life, is filled with interesting and thought-provoking anecdotes. Bernstein discusses the contrast between the warmth of Koussevitzky’s approach to conducting and the more cerebral Reiner. As a student, he was able to combine the best of both worlds.

For Bernstein, teaching and learning were closely linked:

[quote]Music…can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.[/quote]

-Leonard Bernstein