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Aaron Copland's Short Symphony and the Challenge to Human Control and Supervision in Music
AbstractCopland composed his Short Symphony from 1931 to 1933. At the time, the composer lived in his native New York, but he always loved to travel, and these years were no exception: in 1931, he visited Paris, Berlin, and Tangier; and in 1932, he directed a music festival in Yaddo, New York, and took his first trip to Mexico, spending time in Mexico City, Acapulco, and the small Mexican town of Tlalpam before driving back to New York by way of Texas and the deep South. As he travelled about, he needed to have access to a piano, because he composed at the instrument, something he felt mildy guilty about until he discovered that Stravinsky composed at the piano, too.
As its name implies, the Short Symphony is, at fifteen minutes, a relatively short work, comprised of three movements that form a fast-slow-fast design. Copland emphasizes the interconnectedness of the movements by ending the first movement with a quiet transition to the slow movement, and by concluding the slow movement with an attacca into the finale. This relaxed formality complements the spontaneous nature of the music itself.
Typical of Copland, the whole is very tightly conceived, especially the first movement, which is constructed almost entirely from a six-note motive heard immediately at the outset in the woodwinds. The idea itself bears Copland’s unmistakable fingerprint, with its leaping, wide intervals, its staccati, pizzicati, and accents, and its jazzy modal ambiguities, which make room for the sharpest and most pungent dissonances, but always within tonal contexts. All the subsequent material in this very austerely textured movement -- much of the writing often consists of only one or two voices, with triads and richer harmonies used sparingly -- elaborates upon this basic idea; so much so that the form has some precedent in the instrumental music of Mozart, whose string quartets Copland studied during this period.
The slow movement similarly builds upon a simple four-note descending idea, heard initially in the large alto flute. This movement’s tender melancholy is as characteristic of its composer as is the first movement’s athletic vigor. I am reminded in particular of the song, “The Chariot,” that concludes Copland’s song cycle, Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson (1949-1950). Like this slow movement, “The Chariot” is in ABA form, with outer sections that resemble a dirge, and a lighter middle section with dotted rhythms; in the song, the outer sections somberly and calmly portray death, while the middle section poignantly recalls the transient sweep of a single life.
The Short Symphony’s exuberant finale exemplifies Copland’s absorption of diverse musics. In addition to the kinds of African-American and Jewish gestures found, too, in his earlier work, one discerns, in anticipation of his first big success, El Salón México for orchestra (1936), some assimilation of Mexican music. While composing the work, Copland himself told some friends, “The Third movement . . . begins to sound rather Mexcian to me.” One detects an ironic reference in this finale to the famous four-note motive of the finale of the Jupiter Symphony as well.
This finale further quotes a fragment of a Werner Heymann song featured in a German film operetta that Copland had seen while in Berlin, namely, Erik Charrell’s 1931 Der Kongress Tanzt (Congress Dances). Set against the political intrigues of Metternick’s Vienna, this sophisticated comedy imagines an affair between Czar Alexander I and a Viennese glovemaker (played by Lilian Harvey) during the Congress of Vienna. Copland quotes the second phrase of the operetta’s most famous number, sung by an enraptured Harvey as she drives through town in the Czar’s carriage on her way to his villa, the Viennese townspeople and farmers cheering her on: “Das gibt’s nur einmal/Das kommt nicht wieder” (“It happens only once/It will never happen again”). This particular fragment -- highly disguised -- provides the finale with climactic arrival points.
The work’s instrumentation calls for singular forces somewhere between chamber and full orchestra: piccolo, two flutes (one doubling on alto tlue), two oboes, a rarely used bass oboe called the heckelphone (doubling on English horn), two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, piano, and strings--no trombones, tuba, or percussion. This instrumentation, like the music itself, arguably represents a personal take on the time’s neoclassical trends.
Copland did not write the Short Symphony on commission. He possibly assumed that Koussevitzky, who had premiered or performed most of his orchestral work to date, would play this work, too, but Koussevitzky demurred, citing the work’s rhythmic difficulties. Koussevitzky’s great rival, Leopold Stokowski, another champion of the avant-garde, expressed interest in the piece, but also turned it down and for the same reasons. Copland’s friend, the Mexican composer-conductor, Carlos Chávez, came to the rescue, and gave a rather shaky world premiere with the Mexico Symphony Orchestra after ten rehearsals. Copland, in gratitude, dedicated the work to Chávez. As late as 1955, Copland needed the same number of rehearsals with the Südwestfunk Radio Orchestra for a performance in Baden-Baden. In the meantime, in 1944, Stokowski finally presided over an American premiere.
Although the work struggled to find performers, it quickly endeared itself as a special favorite to that elite band of younger composers who had begun to gravitiate around Copland, including Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Berger, Elliott Carter, and David Diamond. To help make the work more accessible, Copland arranged the piece in 1937 as the Sextet for clarinet, string quartet and piano (first performed in 1939). Towards the end of this life, he also sanctioned an arrangement of the work by Dennis Russell Davies for a more conventional chamber orchestra. Since Copland’s death in 1990, the Short Symphony, in all its guises, has earned growing attention, but not as much as it deserves, in part because it remains difficult to execute.
The remainder of this paper will address these difficulties in light of the theme of this conference, tracing Copland’s development and evolution in the years leading up to the Short Symphony. In such early works, but especially in the Short Symphony, Copland engaged in various rhythmic innovations that challenged the ability of conventional musical notation to accurately express his thoughts and that also challenged orchestral conductors to supervise and control events. Although he accomplished this in the context of the modernist rebellion against the Romantic Era’s so-called tyranny of the barline, he did so in ways that distinguished him from many of Europe’s modernist masters, including Stravinsky. The socio-aesthetic implications of this rhythmic style, in particular, the democratic and anti-authoritarion ethos underpinning it, places this impulse in the context of American music as a whole, as exemplified by the music of Charles Ives, Duke Ellington, Carlos Chávez, Elliott Carter, and Steve Reich.