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.

On the Town with Misty Copeland

Ballet star Misty Copeland heads to Broadway.
Ballet star Misty Copeland heads to Broadway.

 

Tomorrow, Misty Copeland, the first African-American woman to be named a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theater, will begin a two week stint on Broadway. Copeland will join the cast of the latest production of On the Town, playing the role of Ivy Smith. Here is a preview and here is Terry Teachout’s review of the production.

In the world of ballet, Misty Copeland is a ground breaker, redefining long-held views regarding the ideal body type of a star ballerina (she is muscular and five-foot-two and a half). Her celebrity status seems to be building bridges to new potential audiences. This interview provides some background on her extraordinary career.

On the Town, which originally opened on Broadway in 1944 with music by Leonard Bernstein and book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, has roots in ballet. It was inspired by Fancy Free, the 1944 Ballet Theater collaboration between Bernstein and Jerome Robbins. At moments Bernstein’s score for Fancy Free may remind you of Stravinsky (5:07), or the bluesy sounds of Gershwin. This impetuous music is far from the blocky, squarely symmetrical phrases of traditional eighteenth and nineteenth century ballet music. Listen for all the fun, irregular, rhythmic surprises and sudden meter changes that continually catch us off guard. Sometimes the music seems to be on the verge of spinning out of control, but, miraculously, it always works itself out.

Here is Bernstein’s 1944 recording with the Ballet Theater orchestra (predecessor to the American Ballet Theater):

On the Town contains the same delirious, off balance, jazzy energy that we hear in Fancy Free. It’s an idealized snapshot of an optimistic, larger-than-life New York of dizzying vitality, and slender, exuberant skyscrapers. In this carefree dreamscape, a group of sailors are on a 24-hour shore leave during wartime 1944. Nothing seems to matter except the present.

The 1960 studio cast recording, conducted by Leonard Bernstein (excerpts below), showcases the virtuosic panache of New York theater musicians in the golden age of the Broadway pit orchestra. The show’s opening explodes with the frenetic hustle and bustle of New York, New York. Bernstein’s score is filled with subtle, but sophisticated details that you wouldn’t find in the average Broadway song. Listen to the repeating bass line of New York, New York and you’ll hear the first four notes of the melody (2:02, 3:09, and 3:59). Then there’s the downbeat defying, canonic madness of the dance music beginning at 4:45 with its irregular meter changes. Later in the excerpt, Bernstein can’t resist sneaking in allusions to Prokofiev (beginning around 7:00) and Shostakovich (9:15):

 Additional Listening

  • Three Dance Episodes from On the Town: Bernstein’s concert suite is made up of significant dance music from the show: Dance of the Great Lover (from the Dream Ballet, Act 2), Pas de Deux (from the “Lonely Town” Ballet, Act 1), Times Square: 1944 (Finale, Act 1). “I believe this is the first Broadway show ever to have as many as seven or eight dance episodes in the space of two acts; and, as a result, the essence of the whole production is contained in these dances,” wrote Bernstein.
  • Lucky to Be Me is from near the end of Act 1.
  • Some Other Timethe final song in Act 2, hints at the blues with its lowered seventh.
  • Find the 1960 studio cast recording on iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Fancy Free on iTunes, Amazon.