Saturday, 10 December 2011

Symphony for the Common Man

Those of you with a literary bent will know of the urge to hail 'The Great American Novel'. There doesn't seem to be quite the clamour to hail 'The Great American Symphony', but when people bring the matter up it usually seems (from British shores) to boil down to a pair of Thirds - those of Roy Harris and Aaron Copland (1900-1990). (Braver souls have been know to posit a symphony by Charles Ives, usually the gloriously strange Fourth). It's the Copland piece that's the subject of this post. [Sadly there's no full performance on YouTube yet].

The 40-minute work has always divided opinion. It came at the end of the Second World War and was a sort of victory symphony "intended to reflect the euphoric spirit of the country at the time" (in Copland's own words). Some critics at the time found it bombastic, especially the ending; the public loved it though. At about the same time that Copland was composing it, the Soviet Union's own expectations of an heroic, celebratory symphony from one of its two great composers, Shostakovich, had just being dashed. They got their man's delightfully cheeky Ninth instead. Copland's Third was, ironically, much more in the spirit of what they'd been expecting.

That said, this symphony could not sound more American. That's because it's the culmination of Copland's 'Americana' style, made perfect in those three magical ballets, Billy the Kid, Rodeo and (one of the first pieces of classical music I fell in love with) Appalachian Spring. That style is
characterised by simple themes, vital rhythms (in fast sections), bright colours, transparently scoring, slow-changing harmonies and a strong flavouring of folk-inspired (or folk-like) melodies, conjuring up a spirit of wide open spaces and optimism. The symphony famously finds a home for Copland's most famous piece from his 'Americana' period, Fanfare for the Common Man.

The symphony opens in the spirit of Appalachian Spring with peaceful pastoral music. A simple theme on violins and woodwinds unfolds, punctuated with what sound like 'amens' from the brass. This is a beautiful opening and, to my mind, only the movement's prairie-like closing pages can equal it for beauty. Wait awhile (as the theme proliferates) and the trombones invade this harmonically clear (largely diatonic) world, introducing a theme with harmonically ambiguous (chromatic) elements, whose opening three notes pre-echo the Fanfare theme to come, but darkly. That three note- figure drawn from the Fanfare is, in the spirit of many a symphonic composer, made to act like a seed for much of the thematic material of the symphony. Here it reaches a menacing climax (or so I hear it) before pastoral music returns. The menacing music is not yet finished though, for it soon re-enters, glinting with percussion and ringing like vast bells (another highlight of the movement). The movement grinds out a huge climax before ebbing, as if with a sigh of relief, back into pastoral lyricism, first glowing then as spare as a wide open prairie.

The second movement Scherzo begins with a mighty thwack. Here we get the colourful Copland of the boisterous sections of the great ballets. The brass blare out a new theme based on the Fanfare figure and a lively dance ensues. Is it too brash, too blatant, too populist for its own good? Some critics certainly think so, but it's exciting and fun and the lyrical Trio section is a delight, providing a complete contrast by singing out a lovely folk-song-like melody, gently but warmly. The main section sneaks back in on piano, but there's nothing sneaky about the movement's big finish.

The slow movement (nothing on YouTube yet to link to) begins with another variant of the Fanfare theme, played in a very high register by the violins. This unearthly, beautiful fugue eventually becomes human with some gorgeous, characteristic Copland harmonies but those harmonies quickly congeal into something tense and knotty. A reassuring hymn-like theme enters and then dies away as the flute begins to sing a simple, folk-like tune. This flute melody is the movement's main theme. Clouds vanish, the pace picks up and we seem to be revisiting the bright-eyed dances of Appalachian Spring for a few minutes. A cloud then passes over (along with a little polytonality - music playing simultaneously in different keys) and the music become veiled in mystery again, as it began.

The Finale follows straight on (a lovely touch). It begins with the Fanfare for the Common Man. It's not a wholesale exporting-in of the original piece (from the early days of the war) but a re-working of it, beginning quietly on woodwinds before bursting forth in full-throated glory. It stirs the spirit. What does Copland do with it, having presented it? He begins it again very quietly, and an oboe sings a new tune over it delightfully. Other winds join it, like a dawn chorus. The movement dances with joy, lively syncopations gaining a grip on the music soon after, and reaches an exuberant climax. Fanfares resound and a fantasy of such figures and further bird-like figuration leads to the introduction of a new folk-song-like tune of considerable charm, gently swaying, softly syncopated. The pace quickens as the happy dancing builds to...well, to what? I won't tell you what it builds to, but it's very unexpected. What do you make of this unexpected thing? Does it fit the movement? Another magical fantasy, much like the one that followed the exuberant climax, leads to the closing pages where the Fanfare rings out and Copland builds a succession of grandiose climaxes until the most grandiose of all brings the symphony to an end. Too grandiose? Surely not for a Mahler-saturated age that can take all manner of bombast.

The Great American Symphony? Well, certainly a great American symphony.

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