The Kennedy Center

Dance Symphony

About the Work

Aaron Copland Composer: Aaron Copland
© Richard Freed

The Dance Symphony, which Copland put together in 1930 using materials from his unpublished ballet Grohg, was given its premiere on April 15, 1930, by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The National Symphony Orchestra's only performance of this work prior to the present concerts was conducted by the composer himself at Wolf Trap on August 4, 1979.

The score calls for 2 flutes and 2 piccolos, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, piccolo clarinet, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 2 horns, 5 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, xylophone, triangle, rattle, legno, cymbals, tam-tam, tambourine, piano, celesta, 2 harps, and strings. Approximate duration, 18 minutes.


Like Camille Saint-Saëns before him, Copland composed five symphonies but assigned numbers to only three of them, and is remembered as a symphonist almost entirely on the strength of his final symphony, bearing the number 3 but actually the last of 5. The first work of Copland's to be called a symphony was his Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, composed in 1924. Four years later he created an alternative version without the organ; that became his “Symphony No. 1,” while the concerto-like original version was not assigned a number. The Short Symphony, composed between 1931 and 1933, became Symphony No. 2, while a number was withheld from the Dance Symphony which preceded it because the composer considered this work one of the “things-called-symphonies-that-aren't.” (He cited Tchaikovsky's Manfred and the Holidays Symphony of Ives as examples of symphonies omitted from the series to which the respective composers gave numbers.) In this case, the “thing-called-a-symphony” is not a symphony whose movements are in dance forms, but a work that might be regarded as more in the nature of a ballet suite.

In 1921, not long after his arrival in Paris to study with Boulanger, Copland showed her some of his piano sketches, and she suggested that he use them in a ballet. A short time after that, Copland and his friend Harold Clurman saw the German Expressionist movie Nosferatu , which moved the composer to act on Boulanger's suggestion. He called his ballet Grohg , taking the name from that of a Danish author and adding the “h,” as he told Phillip Ramey in 1967, “to avoid an alcoholic connotation.” In the “fantastic and symbolic” scenario Copland and Clurman devised together, Grohg is a “magician-vampire” who rules a domain peopled with “dead bodies that dance, an opium-eater, a streetwalker and assorted on-stage coffins.” Copland said the music he composed for the 35-minute work was “rather French in its harmonies” in certain sections, and was influenced by Florent Schmitt's ballet La Tragédie de Salomé , a work credited earlier as an influence on Igor Stravinsky in the creation of his Rite of Spring.

Copland played the opening part of Grohg for Serge Koussevitzky when he called on him in Paris with Boulanger in 1924, a few months before the Russian conductor took up his historic tenure with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Sergei Prokofiev, who was also visiting at the time, complained of “too much bassi ostinati,” but Koussevitzky, undeterred, came through with the invitation to compose the Organ Symphony (for Boulanger to perform on her first American tour). Grohg was completed early the following year, but, as there had been no commission for such a ballet, and no choreography created for it, it was not performed. Howard Hanson conducted the introductory section, the Cortège macabre, on its own on May 1, 1925, in the first of his celebrated festivals of American music at the University of Rochester's Eastman School of music, but there was no further interest in any part of Grohg for a very long time, and in the meantime Copland put its materials to more practical use.

In 1929 Victor Records announced a $25,000 competition for an orchestral work, and Copland—with the Organ Symphony, the Piano Concerto and the orchestral suite Music for the Theatre already in circulation—hoped to submit his Symphonic Ode , which he was writing at the time under a commission for the Boston Symphony Orchestra's 50 th anniversary. When he saw that he could not be able to finish that work in time for the competition, he fashioned the Dance Symphony out of material from his unperformed and unpublished Grohg . He won a share of the prize money ($5,000, the remainder divided among three other composers), and the symphony's premiere under Stokowski was a further part of his award.

Eventually Grohg resurfaced. The Cortège macabre was performed, in the surviving cut version, by Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic in September 1985, in honor of Copland's 85 th birthday. Phillip Ramey, a close associate of Copland and a composer in his own right, collaborated with his distinguished senior colleague David Diamond in restoring the cuts and eliminating some of the bassi ostinati that had so distressed Prokofiev; their restoration was recorded by Leonard Slatkin and the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra in 1987. Four years later the entire score of Grohg was rediscovered at the Library of Congress by the English composer and conductor Oliver Knussen, who conducted the London Sinfonietta in the belated premiere (the music only, without dance) at the 1992 Aldeburgh Festival and subsequently recorded it with the Cleveland Orchestra.

Copland apparently never really abandoned Grohg, for the score Knussen found in Washington is a revised orchestration made in 1932, the year after the premiere of the Dance Symphony. He did, however, draw material from it again, two years after that, for another ballet—his first such score that was requested and choreographed (by Ruth Page)—called Hear Ye! Hear Ye! Rudolf Ganz conducted the premiere of that work in Chicago on November 30, 1934; there were few subsequent performances. ( Hear Ye! Hear Ye! is performed by the London Sinfonietta under Oliver Knussen on the same Argo CD as the Cleveland Grohg.)

There are several precedents for the coexistence of a musical stage work and a symphony drawn from its materials. Prokofiev's ballet The Prodigal Son and his Fourth Symphony, the same composer's opera The Flaming Angel and his Third Symphony, Hindemith's opera Mathis der Maler and his eponymous symphony come to mind as examples, but only the Hindemith work has established itself in the symphonic repertory.

The three movements of the Dance Symphony , played without pause, are built on the introduction and three dances from the ballet score. Copland “greatly shortened” the introduction, but otherwise made few revisions in the original material. The slow introduction to the first movement (Lento) evokes the tale's bizarre setting and leads to a fast section ( Molto allegro ) which had been a “Dance of the Adolescent”in the ballet. This builds to a climax, then yields to a brief Adagio molto passage that serves as a bridge to the second movement, an Andante moderato based on the ballet's “Dance of a Young Girl Who Moves as if in a Dream”; it begins as a slow waltz, builds to a climax of considerable intensity, and expires as a lament.

In the concluding Allegro vivo the listener may recognize several rhythmic figures that point toward Copland's later and more familiar works. The brash, witty, frenetic section that was the ballet's finale, a “Dance of Mockery” in which Grohg's lackeys and victims have gained the upper hand and make sport of him. A suitably derisive theme emerges and is reiterated to the point of giddiness; the momentum slackens momentarily for a variation in the form of a humorously exaggerated waltz which Copland identified as one of his “favorite moments” in the work, then resumes with redoubled vigor for the final thrust, suggestive of a diabolical carnival scene.