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Music for a Great City

About the Work

Aaron Copland
Quick Look Composer: Aaron Copland
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Composer Portrait: Copland May 1 - 3, 2008
© Richard Freed

Aaron Copland acknowledged an indebtedness to his colleague Virgil Thomson for showing him "how to make use of Americana in music." Thomson's use of folk tunes in such works as his 1928 Symphony on a Hymn Tune and his subsequent scores for Pare Lorentz's Depression-era documentary films The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River served as models of a sort for Copland in his own incorporation of similar materials in his music for the ballets Billy the Kid, Rodeo and Appalachian Spring, and also his Lincoln Portrait--but Copland always understood, as did the other great twentieth-century American composers, that the idea of a specifically American character in music did not depend on or require the citation of folk tunes. In 1941 he wrote:

Because we live here and work here, we can be certain that when our music is mature it will also be American in quality. American individuals will produce an American music.

By the time Copland wrote those words, American music had reached its maturity. From the time of Edward MacDowell, George Whitefield Chadwick, Amy Beach, Charles Ives and Carl Ruggles to the time of George Gershwin, Roy Harris, William Schuman, Samuel Barber and Copland himself, it was made manifest in large part by its sheer vitality—and it was given meaning and substance by the degree to which each of these composers put his own personal stamp on it.

For many listeners, Copland's own personal stamp is his evocation of the prairie, or of homespun America in an earlier and less complex time than our own. Let's remind ourselves that this composer was an urbane New Yorker, a son of immigrants from Eastern Europe, a man of his own time who studied (as did so many American composers) with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and simply put that experience, and all his others, to good use in developing an unmistakably American character in his music. His broad interests led him to compose such a work as El Salón México, incorporating Mexican folk tunes, as well as Billy the Kid and Appalachian Spring and others that include citations of the folk music of our own country. His open-mindedness led him to experiment with serialism as well as "Americana," and his deepfelt pride in and reverence for his country and the principles on which it was founded empowered him to stand up to the House Committee on Un-American Activities when that august body questioned his patriotism.

Copland's name had been included in the notorious Red Channels, a blacklist of supposed Communist supporters and sympathizers, published in the early postwar years with the aim of warning off prospective employers or patrons. (Among the other American musicians, writers and actors so honored were Leonard Bernstein, Burl Ives, Dorothy Parker, Arthur Miller, Louis Untermeyer, Lillian Hellman, Howard K. Smith and Pete Seeger.) When Copland was called before the committee early in January 1953, he personified dignity, composure and integrity, courteously but firmly refusing to "name names." In consequence, his Lincoln Portrait was removed from the program of the Inaugural Concert for President Eisenhower later that month; eleven years later, however, Copland received the Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon Johnson.

There is, in fact, hardly a major American prize or award that was not bestowed on him—and did not itself gain significance from being associated with him.

Music for a Great City

About as far from the prairies as could be, this work celebrates Copland's own New York, in both its descriptive focus and its musical character. In 1961 Copland composed the last of his eight film scores: it was for Jack Garfine's Something Wild, a "psychological thriller" set in New York and actually filmed there. It was a violent tale, of a young woman raped in a park and then held captive by a sadistic sociopath. The film did not do very well, and little notice was taken of Copland's contribution, but in 1962, when the composer accepted a commission from the London Symphony Orchestra for its sixtieth anniversary, he thought at once of that movie, in which, as he recalled, "indoor scenes of tense personal drama were interspersed with the realistic sights and sounds of a great metropolis," and he notified the LSO management of his "intention to incorporate parts of the film score in a new composition . . . " His original proposal for the title was Music for New York, but in deference to the source of the commission he changed it to Music for a Great City. The composition occupied him from the fall of 1963 to the following April, and he conducted the premiere in London on May 26, 1964, as part of the LSO's anniversary year celebrations.

Copland recorded the work in London a little more than two weeks after the premiere, as part of his comprehensive series of recordings of his own music for American Columbia (today's Sony Classical), and twenty-five years later Leonard Slatkin recorded it with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra for RCA Victor (today the partner of its longtime rival in constituting SonyBMG), but there have been very few other performances. To be sure, the music resounds with impressions of a vigorous modern city, a far cry from ingratiating cowboy ballads and Shaker hymns, or even the meditative/triumphal gestures of the grand-scaled Third Symphony produced at the end of World War II. It has been noted also that by the time Copland composed this music he had begun using the twelve-tone approach, which tended to produce a sort of counteraction toward the expansiveness of the work that still tend to define his style for most listeners.

What we have here is essentially a four-movement descriptive symphony "about" a city the composer knew very well. In a note of his own, Copland wrote that, while "the nature of the music" he composed for Something Wild seemed to support the idea of concert treatment, he did not concern himself at all with thoughts of relating the concert work to the action in the film. He described the music simply as a four-part portrait of the city:

The four movements of the work alternate between evocations of big-city life, with its external stimuli, and the more personal reactions of any sensitive nature to the varied experiences associated with urban living. Music for a Great City reflects both of these aspects of the contemporary scene. The first movement, Skyline, opens with a broad introduction for full orchestra, followed by a percussion solo to introduce the jazz-oriented theme presented by brass, piano and pizzicato strings. For the second movement, Night Thoughts, I reduced the full-orchestra scoring to chamber music for orchestra, for what might be called a series of free contrapuntal variations.

The reality of big-city life returns in the third-movement scherzo, Subway Jam, which, as one might suspect, includes a great deal of brass and percussion. The final movement, Toward the Bridge, presents contrasting ideas, some jazz-inspired, that build to a big climax, followed by a coda with material from the introduction to the first movement.