"Copland and His World" at Bard's Annual Festival

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Ralph
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"Copland and His World" at Bard's Annual Festival

Post by Ralph » Thu Jul 28, 2005 8:41 pm

July 29, 2005
As American as Copland, Who Forged Our New Sound
By ALLAN KOZINN

A THOROUGH exploration of Aaron Copland's music, with a comprehensive look at the 20th-century American culture that shaped him and that he shaped, seems a natural idea and a likely audience draw. So the most astonishing thing about the festival "Copland and His World" at Bard College is that it was so long in coming.

Bard began presenting its composer-themed summer festivals in 1990, the year of Copland's 90th birthday. (He died that December.) But that first summer, the subject was Brahms. At the Copland centenary, in 2000, the festival, in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., was devoted to Beethoven. In its first 15 years, Bard has examined only one thoroughly American composer, Charles Ives (in 1996), although a few of its other subjects - Bartok (1995), Schoenberg (1999) and Mahler (2002) - had important links to the United States.

Now Bard is more than making up for its tardiness. In addition to three weekends of "Copland and His World" (Aug. 12 to 14 and 19 to 21, and Oct. 21 to 23), the college's Summerscape series (of which the festival is a part) is offering other programs that touch on Copland's time.

This weekend, for instance, a highlight is a staging of "Regina," by Marc Blitzstein, a composer who shared with Copland both an eclectic musical sensibility and a progressive political outlook, and in the weeks to come (starting on Thursday), the Blitzstein work competes with a production of Copland's only full-scale opera, "The Tender Land." Summerscape's film series includes several productions for which Copland wrote the music, including "Of Mice and Men" (Thursday), "The City" and "The Cummington Story" (Aug. 7), "Our Town" (Aug. 11) and "The Red Pony" (Aug. 14).

All this attention seems only right, or at least it does to a critic who grew up in the years when Copland was regarded, with something close to unanimity, as the "dean of American composers." More than Ives, the quirky loner, and more than Copland's most famous contemporaries, like Virgil Thomson, Samuel Barber, Roy Harris and William Schuman, he was for several generations the personification of American composition. Still, those composers, as well as others who wrote in a more rigorous, international style - Roger Sessions and Elliott Carter, among them - helped create an atmosphere of both collegiality and competition that was essential to their shared goal of establishing an American compositional style, or styles.

New Music of the New World

It was not, after all, as if Copland had invented American music, or claimed to. He was fully aware of century-straddling American composers like George Whitefield Chadwick and Edward MacDowell, who wrote in an essentially Germanic style, as well as Charles Tomlinson Griffes, who was more inclined, like Copland, toward French Impressionism.

There was also a line that stretched back to the early and mid-19th century, when Anthony Philip Heinrich and Homer Newton Bartlett affixed American names (like Heinrich's "Dawning of Music in Kentucky") to works cast in European forms, and when Louis Moreau Gottschalk built a concert career playing Lisztian fantasies on both Old and New World themes.

Just before Copland's time, Scott Joplin's ragtime classics might have become an American parallel to the array of nationalistic European styles that ran from Chopin through Albéniz and Granados, and Arthur Farwell tried to take up Dvorak's suggestion that an American voice could be found in Native American chants and dances. And then there was Ives, the crusty New England iconoclast who wove hymns, marches and patriotic songs into his often dissonant harmonic fabric, and his friend Carl Ruggles, whose musical vision of America was daring, idiosyncratic and often muscular.

One thing Copland had that these composers lacked is a critical mass of like-minded colleagues and competitors, as well as sympathetic performers, all pushing to have American composition taken seriously on the world stage. Bard's programs offer an overview of this thriving milieu, sometimes to a fault: in some programs, the context is so rich that Copland nearly fades into the background.

A program called "Paris, Boulanger and Jazz," for example, includes Copland's early, cartoonishly descriptive piano work "The Cat and the Mouse" (1920) and his Four Motets (1921), among works by nine other composers, including several whose jazz-tinged compositions (Stravinsky's "Ragtime," Milhaud's "Création du Monde" and Gershwin's "Three Preludes," among them) influenced Copland's own hybrids.

Another, celebrating Copland's efforts as a promoter of new music, through composer societies, publications and his own conducting, includes only one of his works (the 1930 Piano Variations), alongside scores by seven other composers, from Ives and Ruggles to Sessions and Varèse. And a program devoted to neo-Classicism includes Copland's Violin Sonata amid works by Stravinsky, Piston, Diamond, Fine and others.

Many Shades of Copland

But even if Copland's works are vastly outnumbered, these thematic programs trace the contours of his career. They also touch on a longstanding point of contention in the world of Copland studies (or even merely Copland listening). Specifically, how many Coplands are there?

The most famous Copland, naturally, is the populist composer of Western-tinged ballets, "Billy the Kid" (1938) and "Rodeo" (1942); the instantly endearing "Appalachian Spring" (1943-44), with its deft variations on a graceful Shaker melody; the earthy, broad-boned "Fanfare for the Common Man" (1942); and the "Lincoln Portrait" (1942), with its quotations from folk songs (and Stephen Foster) and its narration from Lincoln's speeches.

But there is also the early Copland, whose works from the "Organ Symphony" (1924) and the rugged Piano Variations (1930) through "Statements" (1935) breathed the angularity of European modernism, and the bluesy Copland, who, before hitting on the notion of evoking the Old West, considered jazz the most direct route to an American language. That Copland explored this approach in works like "Three Moods" (1920-21) and "Four Piano Blues" (1926-47), "Music for the Theater" (1925) and the Piano Concerto (1926).

Yet another Copland - the one who wrote "El Salón Mexico" (1932-36), "Danzón Cubano" (1942) and the "Three Latin American Sketches" (1959) - was fascinated with Latin rhythms, melodies and tone color.

And then there was the post-Americana Copland, who used 12-tone methods in many of his later works, from the Piano Quartet (1950) to his two last major symphonic scores, "Connotations" (1962) and "Inscape" (1967).

Success and the Critics

The success that Copland's popular ballets and celebrations of Americana brought was doubled-edged, not least because listeners were puzzled when he abandoned it for - of all things - 12-tone composition later on. But puzzlement ran in the other direction as well, from critics who admired his early modernist scores, and regarded the popular pieces as pandering. Depending on who was commenting, writers described his catalog as split between the invitingly accessible (or the overtly commercial) and the unbearably harsh (or the rigorously high-minded).

Copland objected to this distinction, and the friction it caused can be seen clearly in several of the contributions to the printed version of "Aaron Copland and His World," a 528-page book edited by the American music specialists Carol J. Oja and Judith Tick, and published by Princeton University Press in connection with the festival. A selection of correspondence between Copland and the composer Arthur Berger, for example, finds Copland reacting with controlled irritation to a biographical sketch Berger published.

"I think also that for the sake of drawing sharp distinctions you rather overdo the dichotomy of my 'severe' and 'simple' styles," Copland wrote to Berger in April 1943. "The inference is that only the severe style is really serious. I don't believe that."

It took until 1970 for Berger to recant fully. "I have become more and more aware of the injustice that can be done to you by imposing too much insulation between 'this kind of Copland music' and that," he wrote in a 70th birthday salute, "and I see you more and more as the unified, the whole musician, capable of expressing his devotion to the highest musical ideals in any number of ways."

Shifting Political Currents

The impression that there were two Coplands is hard to shake, but perhaps distance has made it easier to accept Copland's assertion that all this music flows from the same source. The 12-tone works have their harsh moments, yet the tone row that drives the Piano Quartet yields themes that are essentially tonal and allow for the lyricism, energy and even playfulness that are Copland hallmarks. There are moments in that work that are couched in the same style of wide-open harmonies you hear in "Appalachian Spring."

And "Connotations," which was greeted with near silence and critical iciness when Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic first performed it, has passages etched in the warmly voiced chords that were a Copland thumbprint in the 1940's.

The festival's concerts, lectures and panel discussions also show the degree to which just about every aspect of Copland's life and work was part of an active exchange with the broader culture. And though hindsight has smoothed over some of the ripples, that exchange was not always comfortable.

Shifting political currents took their toll. Having aligned himself in the 1930's and 40's with the progressive social causes that many artists of the time supported - and which, certainly, were consistent with the idealistic populism of his music - Copland found himself ensnared in the anti-Communist hysteria of the postwar years. Life magazine published his picture, taken at a Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1949, under the headline "Dupes and Fellow Travelers Dress Up Communist Fronts."

In 1950, he was denounced by the American Legion and blacklisted in the infamous "Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television."

A 'Portrait' and Patriotism

When his "Lincoln Portrait" was scheduled to be heard in a National Symphony concert celebrating President Dwight D. Eisenhower's inauguration, in 1953, Fred E. Busbey, a Congressman from Illinois, argued from the floor of the House of Representatives that "there are many patriotic composers available without the long record of questionable affiliations of Copland." The piece was quickly dropped: suddenly Copland, the quintessential American composer, was being declared un-American, and one of his most overtly patriotic works was deemed unfit for a presidential occasion.

And in May 1953, Copland was summoned to testify before Senator Joseph R. McCarthy's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. When pressed to name other participants in the 1949 peace conference, he told the subcommittee that he didn't remember seeing anyone who wasn't named in newspaper reports.

The effect of this on Copland's work is difficult to assess. Richard Taruskin suggests, in his "Oxford History of Western Music," that it might not be a coincidence that Copland began his first 12-tone work just after he was denounced by the American Legion. Perhaps. But Copland might have been feeling the limitations of his popular style by then, anyway. Speaking about his style shift, he said simply that 12-tone offered a useful way to find new chords.

He was also doing something he had done several times before: belatedly following a path traveled by Stravinsky before him. In a way, Copland's ballets were American twists on the use of Russian folk music in Stravinsky's early ballets. Copland flirted with Stravinskian neo-Classicism as well. When Stravinsky began writing 12-tone music, Copland resisted, but in the 1950's, he followed suit.

From Yiddish to the Prairies

One score that shows the strain of the hearings, though, is "The Tender Land," the opera that Copland composed to a libretto by the painter and dancer Erik Johns (writing under the pen name Horace Everett) in 1952 (revised 1955). Inspired by James Agee's "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," with its Walker Evans photographs of the Depression-era South, the opera is, on the surface, the quaint story of a farm family, the Mosses, painted in Copland's familiar prairie style.

But an episode at the end of the second act touches on Copland's uneasy experiences with "Red Channels," the Eisenhower inaugural ban and Senator McCarthy. When the Moss family hears reports that young girls in the community have been assaulted, Grandpa Moss, the embittered patriarch, suspects Martin and Top, two recently arrived migrant workers.

The sheriff soon brings news that others have been caught and have confessed, but Grandpa Moss declares that Martin and Top are "guilty all the same."

Copland's Jewishness is the subject of a lecture and a concert, and is touched on in several chapters in the "Copland and His World" book. Copland took his background as a matter of fact: he was not religious, and if he did nothing to hide his Jewish identity, he also did little to call attention to it, beyond writing occasional works like "Vitebsk," a 1928 chamber work based on a Yiddish song.

'Authentic' American Music

It was an issue for others, though. In the 1920's and 30's, composers like Harris and Thomson, who had their own visions of the American musical voice, called attention to Copland's ethnicity periodically, sometimes with the suggestion (either vague or explicit) that it disqualified Copland from producing truly authentic American music.

Some of Copland's colleagues disdained his early use of jazz, in his quest to find an American accent, for similarly unsavory reasons. The composer Henry Cowell, for example, described Copland and Gershwin as "a pair of sophisticated Parisians" (a reference to their having studied in Paris) and argued, in a 1930 interview with the German magazine Melos, that "the roots of jazz are the syncopation and rhythmic accents of the Negro; its modernization and present form is the work of Jews - mostly New York 'Tin-Pan-Alley' Jews. Jazz is Negro music, seen through the eyes of these Jews."

Copland and Gershwin might not have disagreed, except with the tone of Cowell's observation, and with his assertion elsewhere that their use of jazz was to American music's detriment.

None of these tempests did Copland permanent damage, though. And, as it turned out, avowedly secular though he was, he had a rabbinical streak that proved to be a central part of his personality. Like Bernstein, Copland was a natural teacher, a persuasive explainer of what music means and how it's made. In his books -"What to Listen for in Music" (Signet), "Music and Imagination" (Harvard University Press), "On Music" (Da Capo) and "The New Music 1900-1960" (W. W. Norton) - he encourages listeners always to seek out the new and to embrace it both intellectually and viscerally as the sound of its time.

And in the two-part oral history he compiled with Vivian Perlis - "Copland 1900-1942" and "Copland Since 1943" (St. Martin's Press) - his avuncular and, at times, oracular voice comes through powerfully.

Visitors to the festival can hear Copland for themselves in a collection of television interviews and documentaries to be screened on Aug. 12 and 19. And although his music has retained its freshness and its ability to speak for itself, this other aspect - his energetic and authoritative championship of new music in general, and American music in particular - remains crucially important. Who, after all, has been his successor?
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Louis
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Copland at Bard: Tender Land

Post by Louis » Sun Jul 31, 2005 2:49 am

I had the pleasure of attending a few weeks ago the performance of Copland's Appalachian Spring by the Martha Graham Dance company as part of the start-up activities of this year's Bard Festival dedicated to Copland. Toes bent forward, thrusting body motions, vigorous approach, are all halmarks of Graham's powerful and unique style, a tradition that continues marvelously with the company today. I was actually a bit more impressed with the performance of Barber's Medea and its stunning psychological intensity. Staging & sets at Bard were impressive.

I'll be in the Bard neighborhood (Annandale-on-Hudson) next weekend when the Festival will continue with its ostensible centerpiece, the performance of Copland's Tender Land, the quintessential American opera. Shux, I don't have tickets and I'm hoping to get some on a last minute basis. Otherwise I'll just listen to the CD set.

Anyone have any preferences for recorded performances of Tender Land? There are at least two versions for full orchestra, one conducted by Brunelle and the other a student performance by the Martinu Orchestra out of Kentucky. There's also a chamber version. Each has its own strengths.

Louis

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