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Copland: Early Music From America's Composer

Aaron Copland's music can be divided into the brash early pieces and the bucolic later ones.
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Aaron Copland's music can be divided into the brash early pieces and the bucolic later ones.

I grew up thinking of Aaron Copland as the musical voice of America.

Like most everyone, when I hear Copland's music, I see the majesty of the Grand Canyon: I feel my breathing expand and relax with the open skies of Colorado and Montana; I sense the calm of a clear river running through the mountains.

So imagine my shock when I sneaked into a New York Philharmonic rehearsal as a teenager to discover Leonard Bernsteinconducting an angular, atonal, but gripping piece by none other than Aaron Copland. The avant-garde sounds were from Copland's Connotations, and all at once, my preconceptions about Copland flew out the window.

That was a defining moment for me, because it opened my mind and ears to the multidimensionality of Copland as a composer and artist. I became fascinated with his non-American-sounding works, like Orchestral Variations, Connotations and some of his early compositions, which pre-date his interest in folk music and that signature Copland style that we know from his Appalachian Spring.

When I made my subscription debut with the New York Philharmonic in 2000, it happened to coincide with the Copland centenary, and I was able to conduct Connotations, the piece I had heard so many years ago in that Bernstein rehearsal.

Side One: Copland's Bold Beginnings

Throughout my conducting career, I have been fascinated by composers' lesser-known sides — especially those of American composers like Copland, Barber, Bernstein and even Gershwin.

Recently, I had the opportunity to record the "other" symphonies by Copland; by that, I mean those other than his well-known Symphony No. 3. They are works of great imagination, humor and beauty, and they are rarely, if ever, heard in our concert halls. In all of these works, you can hear Copland's trademark characteristics just starting to emerge.

Copland's first symphony was called Symphony for Organ and Orchestra. Its premiere performance — when Copland was just 25 — featured his teacher, Nadia Boulanger, as soloist with the New York Symphony. He later reworked the piece for orchestra alone, which is the version I recorded.

In the symphony's opening, you can almost sense Copland searching for his voice. A more playful atmosphere highlights the second movement, and an avant-garde fugue in the style of Bartok emerges in the finale.

Copland's Symphony No. 2, better known as the Short Symphony, dates from the early 1930s. The opening's spiky dance rhythms and the second movement's simple gestures would both return with a more developed sound (and stronger melodies) in later works like Appalachian Spring.

Even early on, Copland loved to steal from himself. At age 22, he wrote a ballet score to a vampire story called Grohg. Later, he turned that music into his Dance Symphony.

Here, Copland mixes yearning with dissonance as an emotional tool. There's an exotic, sensual waltz and a pulsing, percussive final movement that I think of as Billy the Kid meets Jaws.

To me, these early works are fascinating in that you can hear the musical seeds that will later blossom in Copland's next phase of music — so evocative of wide-open spaces and the American West.

Side Two: Copland's Prairie Populism

So, how did this kid who grew up in Brooklyn — the son of Russian Jewish immigrants — eventually become the voice of the great American landscape? How does he paint such strong and vivid pictures of America? And what is it about the music that evokes such clear associations?

Over time, Copland developed just the right compositional techniques. Listen to the opening of his Fanfare for the Common Man: Copland uses large intervals to construct the melody, so the space between the pitches is large. He tends toward what we call perfect intervals — perfect fourths and fifths — which are devoid of dissonance. And the way he stacks up those large, perfect intervals creates a feeling of wide-open space.

Copland's imaginative orchestrations add to his ability to evoke majestic images: The power of the brass and full percussion in Fanfare is palpable.

Then, in one of Copland's seminal compositions, Appalachian Spring, he brings together his playful side, his penchant for simplicity and his gift for storytelling. He weaves a pioneer tale using indigenous American tunes (the Shaker melody "The Gift to Be Simple") and folk-sounding music, which would become a hallmark of Copland's American sound.

But I like to remind people that Copland was much more than the voice of the American landscape. He was the quintessential 20th-century composer: versatile, chameleon-like, avant-garde, agile and technologically savvy.

He wrote music for every available medium: ballet, songs, film, theater. He even wrote the first opera for television presentation (The Tender Land).

In Copland's incredible ability to constantly adapt, pivot and challenge himself, we find the spirit of possibility — and the true essence of America.

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Marin Alsop
In 2007, Marin Alsop became music director of the Baltimore Symphony, making her the first woman to head a major American orchestra. She was named a 2005 MacArthur Fellow, the first conductor ever to receive the award. Between performances, she appears as an occasional guest on Weekend Edition Saturday and as a commentator for's Marin Alsop on Music column.