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Symphony No. 2, "Short Symphony"

About the Work

Aaron Copland
Quick Look Composer: Aaron Copland
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: David Robertson, conductor/Elena Bashkirova, piano Mar. 25 - 27, 2004
© Richard Freed
The Short Symphony, composed between 1931 and 1933, was given its premiere in Mexico City on November 23, 1934, by the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de México under Carlos Chávez. The work enters the repertory of the National Symphony Orchestra in the present concerts.

The score calls for 2 flutes, piccolo, alto flute, 2 oboes, English horn, hecklephone, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, piano, and strings. Duration, 16 minutes.
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In the middle and late 1920s Copland composed such works as the Organ Symphony, the Dance Symphony, the Piano Concerto and the suite Music for the Theatre, all distinctively his own and clearly reflecting the character of the time and place he knew. In the middle of the following decade he turned his attention to “Americana” (his own term for the folk-flavored ballets, film scores and occasional works that were to make him famous throughout the world). Between those two contrasting periods he went through a transitional one marked by what his colleague and biographer Arthur Berger classified as his “esoteric style.” The Symphonic Ode, the Piano Variations, the piano trio Vitebsk and the Statements for Orchestra are representative works of this period, and so is the Short Symphony, which Copland eventually designated his Symphony No. 2. Phillip Ramey, whose many productive discussions with Copland about his works and his creative outlook earned him status as an authority on this composer, characterizes such works as being “more dissonant and acerbic” than the earlier ones cited here, and “also more tightly argued and (with the exception of the Ode ) more lean and concise.” The Short Symphony in particular gives us a glimpse of Copland in a sort of neo-classical guise.

Chávez, who conducted the premiere (during the period in which Copland was composing his utterly different, ingratiatingly colorful souvenir piece El Salón México ), expressed his admiration for the work in the most glowing terms. Here at home, Leopold Stokowski promptly announced that he would give the U.S. premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Serge Koussevitzky, with whom Copland had established a connection just before the conductor came to America as conductor of the Boston Symphony orchestra in 1924, scheduled performances with his orchestra—but both conductors cancelled their plans for the work. Copland recalled later that both of them told me subsequently that they had announced performances because they admired the work, but that the composition was so intricate from a rhythmic standpoint that they dared not attempt a performance within the allotted rehearsal period.

Frustrated by this situation, Copland recast the score in a different instrumentation. In 1937 it was transformed into his Sextet for Clarinet, Piano and String Quartet, with hardly any changes in the music itself, and in that form it became one of his most successful works in the realm of chamber music. The Symphonyin its original orchestral dress was to wait ten years for its U.S. premiere, finally given by Stokowski with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1944. Although Stokowski, always an enthusiastic champion of new music, was known to go into his own pocket during his years as Toscanini's replacement with that orchestra to pay for extra rehearsal time, soloists' fees and other expenses in order to be able to introduce new works he considered worthwhile, Copland described that performance of the Short Symphony as an “extremely inadequate reading,” and more than 20 years were to pass after that before the work began to receive even limited circulation in performances and recordings. Around then (in the late Sixties), Copland gave the following description to Phillip Ramey:

In [this work] I continued the effort, begun with the Piano Variations, to expand my style, both harmonically and rhythmically. The Short Symphony's preoccupation is with complex rhythms, combined with clear textures. Sonority-wise, the most rhythmically complex moments have a certain lightness and clarity. The work is in three movements (fast, slow, fast) played without pause. The first movement is scherzo-like in character. The second movement is in three brief sections—the first rises to a dissonant climax, is sharply contrasted with a songlike middle part, and returns to the beginning. The finale is once again bright in color and rhythmically intricate.

It may be noted that the relatively modest scoring—no percussion, no trombones or tuba—seems consonant with the work's “neo-classical” textures and “lean and concise” character. We may note further that all of Copland's symphonies exist wholly or partially in alternative forms. The Symphony No. 1 is the same music as the Organ Symphony, minus the organ; the Dance Symphony (which the composer omitted from his numbered cycle) was drawn in large part from Copland's music for the ballet Grohg ; the Short Symphony, as already noted, was adapted as an instrumental sextet; and the Third Symphony not only incorporates the Fanfare for the Common Man into its final movement, but contains allusions to it in earlier sections.