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.

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