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AARON COPLAND is the most American of American classical composers. I celebrate him here with several mini reviews of music I love. Tomorrow, I recommend a most artful book on Copland and American culture.
Aaron Copland was Brooklyn-born in 1900 into a Conservative Jewish family of Lithuanian heritage. His musical gene may be traced to his mother, who sang and played the piano. It’s an indication of his genius that this Brooklyn kid came to define the gentleness of Appalachia, the tenderness of Midwest farm life and the heritage of the American West.
In 1944, dancer/choreographer Martha Graham commissioned a ballet to be performed at the Library of Congress. Orchestra space in the hall limited the ensemble to a double string quartet, bass, flute, clarinet, bassoon and piano.
Copland originally called the piece Ballet for Martha, though shortly before the premiere, Graham suggested Appalachian Spring, after a phrase in a Hart Crane poem. Within a year of its premiere, Copland rearranged the music as a suite for full orchestra, the version familiar to most classical music fans.
To me, the original chamber ensemble matches the simplicity and charm of Appalachian Spring.
Another favorite of mine, The Tender Land, is a three-act opera set on a farm in the Midwest. Laurie is a high-school senior. Martin and his pal Top are itinerant hands, taken on to help with the harvest. Laurie and Martin fall in love and….
Written between 1952 and 1954, the opera was originally intended for television, an idea that got rejected by TV moguls. (Where was Omnibus when we needed it?)
Copland wrote a goodly amount of music for film, one piece being particularly memorable to me. The Red Pony was a 1949 movie based on John Steinbeck’s short stories of ranch life in the West.
In mid-1950s Cleveland, The Red Pony was an inexplicable second feature following Ulysses, a spaghetti-Greek flick starring Kirk Douglas and other clenched-teeth heroes.
I was in junior high at the time and, I confess, something of a gang member. My pals and I were leaving the theater, our own teeth suitably clenched, when I heard the first chords of Red Pony.
“Wait,” I said, “that’s Aaron Copland!”
I guess none of my pals knew anyone by that name, so I was the only one staying for the second feature. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013