Tuesday, 24 April 2012

The Four Ages of Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring is one of the handful of pieces which first turned me onto classical music in my late teens. (What the others were you will doubtless discover in due course!) I used to listen to it over and over again. I listen to it far less often these days but, even now, I still get a tingle down my spine whenever I hear its quiet opening bars.

Appalachian Spring is a piece I will save for another post. I want to use it, however, as a beacon on the landscape of Copland's output - the highpoint of his 'American' style, where that style appears at its simplest and most accessible. Other scores in his 'American' style cluster around Appalachian Spring and there are foretastes and aftertastes of it among his early and late works. Copland, however, wrote in several styles throughout his composing life and his music was not always so simple or accessible - it could also be tough, dissonant, modernist. He was a composer not only the music of prairies but also the music of the city. He could write in a populist folksong-inspired style but was no less capable of composing in a potentially crowd-displeasing abstract vein - the kind of music that could famously make the likes of Jackie Kennedy exclaim, 'Oh, Mr. Copland!' (after a performance of the late serialist work, Connotations).

To simplify (and how!), Copland began as a composer of the Jazz Age, passed into an Age of Modernist Austerity, embraced the New Deal ideals of American 'music for the people' and then reverted to modernism for a final Cold War Era of serialism. Of course, it's far from being as neat and tidy as that! Still, even if 'The Four Ages of Copland' is a simplistic concept I think it's not entirely unhelpful. I will chose four representative pieces from each 'Age' to give you a flavour of the range of Aaron Copland's wonderful music. The Jazz Age is represented by the Piano Concerto of 1926, the Age of Modernist Austerity by the Piano Variations of 1930, the New Deal 'Americana' period by the Violin Sonata and the Era of Serialism by the orchestral work Inscape.

The Piano Concerto comes from the time of Gershwin and his Rhapsody in Blue and Piano Concerto and is the jazziest piece Copland ever wrote. I've long felt that the sort of symphonic jazz we hear in, say, Bernstein comes much more from this piece than from the more famous Gershwin pieces. The first part is influenced by the blues while the second part takes its inspiration from the livelier side of jazz. The arresting opening fanfares for trumpets and trombones, soon joined by the strings, are typical of Copland throughout his output. They have the confidence of 1920s skyscrapers. They repeatedly sound a three-note figure which is treated in canon, with cross rhythms. A memorable bluesy melody (with much use of the minor third) flows out from them in a blaze of lyricism. The soloist then enters and rhapsodises on this tune attractively. The three-note figure opens that melody too and continues to be influential throughout - and not just in the first movement - as orchestra and piano take turns in singing the blues. The movement moves between gently dreaming on this theme and bursting out in fresh fanfares and/or creating a complex cityscape of sound. With the second movement comes a dramatic switch of mood. There's a cocky-sounding piano solo in the style of a lively jazz improvisation to begin with.The jazzy writing in the piano part is reflected in the orchestra, especially when Copland begins making the orchestra sound like a jazz ensemble. Wild and catchy (it has another memorable main theme), this section should get you tapping your toes - at times. 

From popular music (jazz) and catchy tunes, it's onto something very different with the severely abstract  and unquestionably modernist Piano Variations. Bernstein - a great enthusiast for the piece - is often quoted about this piece saying that he could empty a room at parties just by playing it! Once you get to know it though, it's a piece you can get very enthusiastic about. It may seem like a strikingly dissonant and austere score but I would compare it to Bartok in its fierce energy and it's not all about percussive piano writing and sharply-angled phrases as there are also consoling, inward-looking passages and memorable ideas. The Piano Concerto drew a lot on that three-note figure and here Copland takes a five-note figure and makes that the basis of his piece. Here, though, he treats in a way closely akin to serialism - i.e. as a tone row. He keeps his harmonic language tonal though and the result is very far from dry. I find it a gripping work and love it to bits - as much as I love the Piano Concerto

On though to the Violin Sonata. Here we are recognisably in the world of Appalachian Spring, with simplicity, uncluttered textures, themes that sound like folk songs or hymn tunes and a pastoral atmosphere that is far from the urban jazz of the Piano Concerto and the abstracted cityscape of the Piano Concerto. This is music that aims to speak straight to the American people. What remains constant though is the composer's ability to make a lot from simple starting ideas. As in the Variations a five-note figure (which you will hear the violin play straight away) plays a key role, generating much of the material of the lovely first movement. If the Variations were fierce then the Violin Sonata is serene but the flow of lyrical melody is set alongside exhilarating and joyous passages. The central slow movement is remarkably simple - especially if heard after the Variations! The piano plays its own tune and the violin plays another, though there is no disharmony between the two whatsoever and they often walk hand in hand. The closing Allegro presents a highly puckish first subject and contrasts it with a more lyrical second theme before a jubilant dancing third theme enters. At the end, things slow and the music that began the first movement returns wistfully. 

When we enter the Age of Serialism and come to Inscape (the title comes from Gerard Manley Hopkins) we find Copland returning to his own serial technique - that of the Piano Variations - but fusing it with the serial techniques of Schoenberg and his disciples. I chose Inscape rather than Connotations because it is more representative than Connotations in trying to keep tonality in play while simultaneously writing 12-note music - and also because I prefer it! Those twelve notes are all packed into the open chord before two-line writing begins - writing that does sometimes sound like the Copland of the open prairies. It changes places with further assertions of dissonant chords of the kind that recall the abstract urban landscape of the Piano Variations. Though he is wearing someone else's suit to a certain extent, Inscape still sounds like true Copland. Serial music seems to be plummeting out of fashion at a moment - not that Copland's serial works were ever really in fashion! - and part of me regrets that Copland felt he had to pursue the 12-tone path, but Inscape is a grand and often beautiful work and I'm glad he wrote it. 

None of these scores gets played very often in the United Kingdom, which is a shame. Radio producers and concerto programmes here should look beyond El Salon Mexico and the three great ballets (Billy the Kid, Rodeo and Appalachian Spring)!

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