Symphony No. 3

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            Aaron Copland is generally considered America’s greatest composer.  That is, it is he, through his compositions and through his essays, books, lectures, and other thoughts on music, who has done more than any other individual to establish a corpus of “serious” music in this country that has largely defined an “American Sound."  He lived a long life; influenced generations of young composers; advanced the cause of art music in this country; and composed music that has delighted millions in the audiences of ballet, chamber music, symphonic music, radio, television, and the movies.  The son of Jewish immigrants, he lived for most of his life in New York City—or close by—but assimilated so much of the disparate elements of our culture that he came to be considered as representative of all of it.  In his music one finds jazz, ethnic, western, folk, intellectual, and populist elements and references—and much more: Cuban, Mexican, and European Continental.  But his wide-ranging intellect easily synthesized it all into an inimitable style (or small group of stylistic voices) with which his music spoke with a clear and unified expression. 

            His greatest musical influence was undoubtedly the grande dame of teachers, Mme. Nadia Boulanger, with whom he studied in Paris during the early 1920s.   Teacher of generations of distinguished performers and composers, she counted Copland as her greatest pupil.   Of course, while spending those years in Paris—along with the so-called “lost” generation (Copland was assuredly not part of it)—he was exposed to a wealth of musical styles and composers.   Of them, Stravinsky was the other great influence upon Copland.  Upon his return to the USA his early dalliance with jazz and “symphonic jazz” was more or less replaced by a severe, often dissonant style—one not often associated with Copland by much of today’s audiences, but definitely a life-long option for him in his compositions.  During the 1930s his interest in socialist perspectives crystallized for him and he turned to a more accessible, populist style that has come to be his hallmark for mainstream America.  His ballets, Billy the Kid, Rodeo, and Appalachian Spring, as well as his music for the films, Of Mice and Men and Our Town and other works all endeared him to a wide audience and made his reputation as composer of “American” music.  He continued that trend with the Lincoln Portrait, music for the film adaptation of Steinbeck’s Red Pony, and even wrote a clarinet concerto for the great Benny Goodman.  How mainstream American can you get?   But about 1950 both Copland’s musical style and his popular place in society took a distinct turn.  His earlier support of socialist causes (he supported the American Communist Party in the election of 1936) made him a target of Red Hysteria and Senator McCarthy.   The Republican Party cancelled a performance of his Lincoln Portrait for Ike’s inauguration, and other indignities followed him for a few years.  His music began—but not completely—to return to the severe and dissonant basis that informed his early work, and he occasionally disappointed those who commissioned works thinking they were going to get another Appalachian Spring.  By 1972, in his own words, it was “as if someone had simply turned off a faucet,” and he gave up composition completely.   He died in 1990 of Alzheimer’s disease.

            His Third Symphony is his largest and grandest symphonic work (the other works called “symphony” are either not actual symphonies, or else smaller in concept or differ in design).  It has been called the most significant symphony written by an American in the twentieth century.  He started writing it in 1944 and finished it in 1946, and its mood clearly reflects the confidence, optimism, and sense of destiny that pervaded much of the American ethos at that time.   Copland, himself, characterized it as “fat” rather than his usual “lean.”  It’s a big, serious work that is largely based upon his immortal Fanfare for the Common Man, one of a number of wartime fanfares from a variety of composers commissioned by Eugene Goossens of the Cincinnati Symphonic in 1942.  Only his has survived on concert programs—and everywhere else.   It is cast in the traditional four movements, with the fast scherzo movement coming second, and the slow movement third.  It is an intriguing and pleasant game to listen from the very beginning of the symphony for bits and snatches of the iconic melodic intervals of the Fanfare for the Common Man that pervade the work.  Copland is most clever in obscuring the source of the intervals, and the way in which he manipulates them, to create a fabulous artistic unity in all four movements.  One is hardly aware of them—unless listening for them—until one hears the pianissimo flutes and clarinets at the beginning of the last movement.  The brass then play the familiar fanfare and a full-blown development follows in which various derivative themes are heard—some from earlier in other movements.  Finally, the whole work closes with a glorious execution of the fanfare in the full orchestra, carried by the brass.  It’s hard not to thrill to this work.  One ascribes to it feelings that are shared, but inevitably personal, as well.  Leonard Bernstein said it best, perhaps: “The symphony has become an American monument, like the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial.”

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan