The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 3

About the Work

Aaron Copland Composer: Aaron Copland
© Richard Freed

Copland's Third Symphony, completed in 1946, was given its premiere on October 18 of that year by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky. The National Symphony Orchestra first performed the work on October 14, 1967, at the Teatro Real in Madrid, under Howard Mitchell, and performed it last in the concerts of February 10-12, 2005, under Leonard Slatkin.

The conductor Serge Koussevitzky had a remarkably productive career in respect to the music he commissioned and introduced, both in Europe and in the capstone of his career, his 25-year tenure on the podium of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1924-1949). In his commissions, his performances, the foundations he created, and his specific design for the activities at the Tanglewood Festival, Koussevitzky provided conspicuously effective service to American music, and he did so in large part with Copland's guidance. These two extraordinary figures first met in Paris, just before Koussevitzky took over the Boston orchestra, and the Third Symphony came about in a sense as the culmination of their long and fruitful association.

The young Copland, studying in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, was taken by her to meet Koussevitzky, who during that first visit asked him to compose a work for Boulanger's first American tour: the outcome was Copland's first ambitious symphonic work, the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra. Once Koussevitzky actually arrived in Boston, he made Copland his adviser on American music, and both of them took that commitment very seriously. Copland brought numerous colleagues to Koussevitzky's attention, helped direct his focus on American music when the conductor established the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, and took a very active part there himself, extending for nearly four full decades beyond Koussevitzky's own tenure. One outgrowth of this activity was the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, headquartered now at the Library of Congress. It was through that foundation that Copland received his final commission from Koussevitzky, to which he responded with the last and most substantial of his symphonies.

It was only with the composition of this work that Copland began affixing numbers to his symphonies--and even then he did not include all of them in his enumeration. He followed the Organ Symphony (which Boulanger introduced not with Koussevitzky in Boston but in New York with Walter Damrosch, who remarked to the audience that a man who could compose such a work at age 23 might "within five years . . . be capable of committing murder") with his Dance Symphony in 1929, and the Short Symphony in 1931-33. His 1928 arrangement of the Organ Symphony, in which the solo instrument was eliminated, became his Symphony No. 1, and the Short Symphony became No. 2. The Organ Symphony in its original concerto-like form continues to circulate without a number, and the Dance Symphony was not given one, Copland explained, "because it is really not a symphony in the traditional sense," having been arranged from materials in his 1921 score for the ballet Grohg to serve as his (successful) entry in a competition for new orchestral works.

Many other symphonies of course, by composers ranging from Johann Christian Bach to Prokofiev, might be disqualified on similar grounds. In any event, Copland, like Camille Saint-Saens before him, produced a total of five symphonies and gave only three of them numbers. What is more to the point is that in the last of them he produced a landmark work in identifying a recognizably American sort of symphony, much as Saint-Saens in his last helped to define the character of the French symphony.

Copland's Symphony No. 3 also completed a stunning trilogy of significant American "Third Symphonies," all of which were commissioned and introduced by Koussevitzky within about seven years; the two earlier ones are those of Copland's friends Roy Harris and William Schuman. Koussevitzky and his Boston orchestra gave the premiere of the one-movement Harris Third in 1939 (and recorded it the same year), and that of the Schumann Third two years later. Both individually and collectively, these three symphonies, together with those of Charles Ives, probably represent the most exalted statements in this form so far produced by our native composers.

All three of these "Thirds," moreover, proclaim themselves, unself-consciously but unmistakably, as specifically American symphonies. None makes use of folk tunes, hymns or patriotic airs, as Ives did (Ives's music, of course, was virtually unknown and his symphonies unperformed when Copland composed the present work), but all are filled with the vitality, breadth and compassion associated with the American spirit in its most positive 20th-century aspect. It was eminently fitting, then, that Antal Dor?ti, the NSO's music director from 1970 to 1977, opened the orchestra's 1974-75 season with a program made up of these three "Thirds," with all three composers in attendance. A similar program was given 14 years later by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, nine years after Harris's death.

Of these three "Thirds," Copland's is by all odds the most expansive, and also the one that follows most closely the traditional format of the symphony. This is both fitting and perhaps inevitable, in the context of the times and of the composer's own production. The Harris and Schuman Third Symphonies were created when the country was working its way out of the Great Depression; the vibrancy and taut conciseness of those works, which happened to be the breakthrough pieces for their respective composers, bespeak driving energy and a certain spirit of determination and resolve. Copland's Third came at the end of World War II, a successful struggle that had been pursued with idealism and national unity, and which left the country entering a period of new prosperity and new thoughts about itself. It was a symphony specifically commissioned as such from a seasoned creator whose ballets and other works had made him the most successful American composer of "serious" music. To remark that both the bright outlook of that propitious postwar time and occasional recollections of the struggles of the period that preceded it are reflected in the score, is not to suggest that this is in any way a "programmatic" work, but only to note its defining character: a human quality, grounded in undisguised warmth of heart, that is a unifying factor more conspicuous and more significant than any of its themes or construction devices.

Parallels have been drawn between this work and the heroically proportioned symphonies of Shostakovich, and it has been further noted that Copland shared a bit of the Russian composer's fascination with Mahler. This symphony of Copland's and such a work as the Shostakovich Fifth share to a degree a common conceptual basis, if not a common style: part of that basis may stem from an awareness of Mahler, and part from the desire on the part of both the Russian and the American to communicate directly with a large audience?to speak to and for their respective peoples. In discussing the Shostakovich Fifth in his celebrated study of Soviet music, Boris Schwarz summed up its emotional power in remarks that may be applied to the Copland Third as well. The work possesses, he stated, "the gesellschaftbildene Kraft [the power to create the image of a community], an expression coined by Paul Bekker to describe the power of Mahler. It is the power given only to the great symphoniests?the power to weld an audience together, to uplift and move masses of disparate people in one single emotional wave, sweeping aside all intellectual reservations."

In this lies the real parallel between Copland and Shostakovich, whatever details may appear to support further musical ones?such as an opening movement that is not a conventional sonata allegro, but a Molto moderato in which the absence of a real development section contributes toward an economy in the handling of the materials. The American composer William Flanagan, in his perceptive analysis of the Copland Third, suggested that this "would appear to be a calculated attempt on the part of the composer to avoid vitiating [the three themes'] freshness of effect at points of stunning cyclic reappearance in later movements.

The second movement, in effect a scherzo, is clear-cut and direct, with episodes recalling Copland's ballet scores, the beloved Appalachian Spring in particular. The themes, though, are derived from material in the preceding movement, as are those in the remaining ones. Somewhat altered but still easily recognized, the last of the first movement's three themes is the basis for the slow movement's elaborately developed (and virtually self-sufficient) introductory section. The movement proper is initiated by a related theme stated by the flute and, as Flanagan noted, "proceeds thereafter in a variational technique?exquisitely and delicately scored?so typically Copland that it virtually spells his name."

The poignant and deepfelt movement does not come to a full conclusion, but proceeds all but seamlessly into the finale, which begins quietly with the woodwinds' statement of one of the themes heard in all three of the preceding movements, now transformed?or, one might say, clarified?so that its origin is recognized for the first time. It is the Fanfare for the Common Man, which Copland composed in 1942 as his contribution to a series of wartime fanfares commissioned form several American composers by Eugene Goossens, who was then conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Copland felt free to recycle it here, he said, because he never expected the original fanfare to attain such remarkable popularity as it has done in its own right?but that popularity, and its patriotic context, may be themselves acknowledged as providing the Third Symphony itself with its perceived symbolism.

This fanfare theme, subtly disguised, has gone through numerous merry, brooding and pastoral transformations in the Symphony's earlier movements, and now, following the woodwinds' brief prefatory gesture, it is reconstituted in its original proclamative form with brasses and drums. The entire finale is based on this theme, which returns again in more or less its original form in the coda, ending the Symphony in a blaze of exultation.

Leonard Slatkin, who recorded the Copland Third with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, chose it for his first program as music director designate of the NSO in September 1994 and has performed it with this orchestra more than twenty times prior to this week's concerts. His performances are based on Copland's original score, which differs in several details from the second published version, one of the more conspicuous alterations in that edition being a cut of eight measures at the very end of the work. The cut was the suggestion of Leonard Bernstein, who was the first conductor to take up the Third Symphony following its premiere under Koussevitzky. Bernstein first conducted it in Prague in June 1947, and first performed it with the cut at the end in Israel in the fall of the following year, reporting to Copland that "it makes a whale of a difference." Copland was eventually persuaded to sanction the cut when the score was published a second time, but Mr. Slatkin has steadfastly demonstrated his confidence in the original ending, feeling the big affirmative gesture is simply more emphatic and more convincing without the cut, more consonant with the overall balance of the work's grand design.