Three Latin American Sketches


        Copland is clearly regarded as the most significant American composer of  “classical” music, and that reputation is considerably enhanced by the association with him of what many musical critics call the “American” style.  It’s really difficult to exaggerate his impact upon serious music in American culture.   The importance of his compositions is self-evident, of course, not only intrinsically, but equally so in their influence on a legion of young American composers.  And in twentieth-century America no other composer approaching his stature labored so assiduously as essayist, author, lecturer, patron, and teacher.  His impact was profound.

        The facts of his life are well known:  he lived most of his life in New York City, was the son of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, and studied in Paris with the esteemed Mme. Nadia Boulanger during the 1920s.  During the 1930s and 1940s he established his place of permanence in American musical culture with a series of works that achieved stunning success, and which apparently will remain in the mainstream of our musical tastes.  It was during that time that his music seemed to be a perfect reflection of not only the American reality of those difficult times, but equally so an articulation of our collective social myths and aspirations.   The list is familiar: Billy the Kid, Rodeo, Appalachian Spring, Of Mice and Men, Our Town, Lincoln Portrait, the Red Pony, the clarinet concerto for Benny Goodman, and of course, Fanfare for the Common Man.

             His musical personality was not one that developed and flourished in isolation; he was inordinately immersed in the rich musical life that surrounded him in America’s cultural capital.  Whether jazz, so-called popular music, Cuban, Mexican, European, American folk, western—it all was stimulating to the mind of Copland, and of course, surfaced in various nuanced ways in his own compositions.

            What is less widely appreciated is that much of the music that is adored by the American public to some regard represents only part of Copland’s innate, but varied, musical language.  During his early years, roughly the 1920s, and more particularly during his latter years as a composer, he favored a rather more dissonant and less accessible musical style.  So, it is important to recognize the complexity of his musical personality if one is to consider the whole.

            By the 1960s he was composing much less actively than previously, spending much time conducting and in other musical activities.  By the early 1970s, in his own words, it was “as if someone had simply turned off a faucet.”  He gave up composition completely in 1972, and lived for another eighteen years, finally succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease.

Copland had always been attracted to the blandishments of popular and folk music of Latin American, and many are familiar with his compositions that reflect that interest:  El Salón México and Danzon CubanoThree Latin American Sketches is a late work—and a bit obscure one--receiving its first performance in its complete form in 1972 by Andre Kostelanetz and the New York Philharmonic.  However, the last two movements—originally scored for two pianos--had been composed earlier in 1959 in Acapulco on a commission from Menotti for the Spoleto Festival.   The orchestra of the full, last version is modest, with four solo woodwinds, solo trumpet and strings, but includes an impressive Latin percussion section and two pianos.  All three movements integrate traditional Latin-American folk material.

The first movement, “Estribillo,” is a rather astringent, heavily syncopated one, in which the tunes jump around from section to section of the orchestra.  The second movement, “Paisaje Mexicano,” features a variety of wind solos, and in its gentle, flowing lyricism, is a subject example of Copland’s famous skill at evoking natural landscapes.  In this case, he perfectly echoes the title of the movement.  The shifting meters, scalar passages, and colorful percussion of the last movement, “Danza de Jalisco,” are reminiscent of El Salon Mexico.  But, it must be said, all three movements are Latin America seen through a glass darkly and more abstractly, in this work from late in the composer’s life.  The catchy meters of Mexican folk music are fun and recognizable—not to mention the hand clapping by the pianists--but the harsh dissonances and irregular accents are testimony to the refractions of Copland’s musical personality at the end of his distinguished career.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan