To mark what would have been Aaron Copland’s 100th birthday in 2000, Sony Classical disgorged a cornucopia of Copland works. This three volume, six-CD set gives a good overview of the career of this quintessential American composer. It includes the best-known works — chamber, orchestral and choral — as well as a smattering of some of Copland’s lesser-known works, and some alternate versions and rarities previously unreleased on CD; and even a few never before released at all.
Volume 1 hits the high points of Copland’s orchestral and chamber pieces, including “Fanfare for the Common Man,” “Rodeo” and “Appalachian Spring.” The latter, which takes up most of Disc 2, is of particular interest, because it truly is what it’s billed as, the “original version,” as scored for small chamber group. Copland conducts the Columbia Chamber Ensemble in this 1973 recording — and as a bonus, at the end of the disc, we get nearly 20 minutes of the composer and conductor rehearsing the piece with the ensemble.
The piece as played by this 15-instrument group has a light and airy feel, and is full of superb solos and duets. This is a full version, not a pared-down suite, giving the full depth of Copland’s remarkable vision as he composed the work for Martha Graham in 1943. You’ll recognize several folk themes that he later used in his beautiful set of American Songs, heard in two different versions on Vols. 2 and 3.
The set opens, however, with the majesty of the “Fanfare for the Common Man,” written as a morale booster during the dark days of America’s entry into World War II, following Pearl Harbor. This 1968 recording by the London Symphony Orchestra is stirring.
Most of the rest of the orchestral works on Disc 1 are also by the London Symphony, including “Rodeo, “Billy,” “Danzon Cubano,” “Quiet City,” and “Down a Country Lane.” “El Salon Mexico” is by the New Philharmonia, also of London, from 1972. “Rodeo” among all of Copland’s ballet scores probably works best as a pure listening experience.
“Billy the Kid,” was the first ballet by an American composer to attain repertory status. The version here is a 22-minute suite extracted from the 30-minute ballet score by the composer.
“El Salon Mexico” and “Danzon Cubano” taken here from early 1970s recordings, give a brief glimpse of Copland’s influential Latin American-based works. The former is recognizably Mexican in sound and theme; it premiered in 1936, and was based on a trip to Mexico the composer took in 1932. He draws from several folk tunes, but displays them in his own way, with lots of dramatic percussion, contrasting high and low sounds, and lots of brass. “Cubano” is an orchestral version of the original two-piano piece, integrating American and Latin themes in a wonderfully textured piece full of interesting instrumental juxtapositions.
The disc is rounded out by two smaller and less well-known works. “Quiet City” is a 10-minute suite taken from the soundtrack of Elia Kazan’s film based on Irwin Shaw’s play of that name. It’s a moody and nostalgic piece, with a slight Yiddish influence, alternately dark and hopeful. “Country Lane,” written in the early 1960s, was originally a piano piece, arranged here for the London Junior Orchestra. It was used in Spike Lee’s movie He Got Game in 1998.
Disc 2 contains, in addition to the “Appalachian Spring” rehearsals and performance, the first CD release of the “Nonet for Strings” performed by the Columbia String Ensemble. This 1962 piece, 17 minutes long in three movements, is dedicated to Copland’s mentor, Nadia Boulanger. It’s one of Copland’s least-performed works, requiring much from players and listeners, but ultimately rewarding. As Howard Pollack says in his superb 1999 biography, “…the Nonet’s unwieldy textures pose significant challenges for listeners and performers alike, though they neatly match the autumnal and somber qualities that, for all its moments of gaiety, seem very much part of its essential makeup.”
Pollack wrote the liner notes to all three of these volumes; they’re sometimes a bit sketchy, but they nicely summarize his comments about the works in the biography.
As Pollack points out in his book and liner notes, Copland’s output of chamber music was quite limited — about one major piece for each of the five decades in which he actively composed. This volume is noteworthy, then, for collecting several of these works, including some on CD for the first time. And in all of them — “Vitebsk,” “Sextet,” “Piano Quartet,” and “Duo,” Copland himself plays piano, a real treat.
The chamber works on Disc 1 represent his earliest to latest works as well. “Vitebsk, Study on a Jewish Theme,” was composed in 1928, when he was still highly influenced by jazz. This dramatic and colorful piece is not for the faint of heart, with its dark textures and dissonant chords, but it’s also quite accessible in places, with its jazzy rhythms and syncopated piano parts.
The “Sextet” for clarinet, piano and string quartet was composed in 1933; this recording is from 1966 by the Juilliard String Quartet plus the composer on piano and Harold Wright on clarinet. Its three movements are alternately lively and melodic, slow and darkly textured, and jazzy and dissonant.
The 1950 “Piano Quartet,” another 1966 recording featuring Juilliard members, is one of Copland’s few experiments with the 12-tone system, but don’t let that scare you off. It’s one of the more lyrical 12-tone pieces I’ve ever heard, and really not that different from many of his other compositions in its use of rich textures and shifting time signatures.
The “Duo for Flute and Piano,” like the quartet, is a first CD release of this performance. This 1970 work drew on ideas Copland first used in the 1940s, but it’s executed with the sure hand of the mature master. By turns lovely and melodic, wistfully mournful and briskly marching, it has rightly become one of Copland’s most recorded works. This one is notable chiefly for Copland’s playing on piano and the fact that the flautist, Elaine Shaffer, was one of the top students of William Kincaid, in whose memory it was commissioned.
Disc 2 is a bit of a hodge-podge. It includes a 1958 recording of the “Lincoln Portrait” with the New York Philharmonic, narrated by poet Carl Sandburg, and a brief suite of three movements from “Billy the Kid,” arranged for solo piano, two of which are previously unreleased. Musically, the “Lincoln Portrait” is powerfully moving, but Sandburg’s narration is woefully inadequate — an actor or trained speaker would have been a better choice. The “Billy” excerpts are pleasant, but too brief to be anything but curiosities.
In the middle we have some alternate versions of two very popular works, the “Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson,” and both sets of “Old American Songs.” These recordings, from the early 1950s, are monaural, and feature solo piano accompaniment by Copland. Mezzo-soprano Martha Lipton does a splendid job on the Dickinson works, which are among the hardest pieces to sing in the American repertory. And the sparse accompaniment on the “Songs” lets the superb vocals of William Warfield really shine through. But there’s a noticeable flutter and lack of clarity on the Dickinson poem recordings in particular.
This volume, focusing solely on vocal works, presents alternate versions of “Old American Songs” and the Dickinson poems. Both are later recordings; the “Songs” again by Warfield, this time accompanied by the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Copland conducting. The 1962 recording is in stereo, the orchestral performance vibrant and lively. The Dickinson poems were recorded in 1964 with soprano Adele Addison singing, Copland accompanying. Addison’s higher, clearer voice gives a different feel to the pieces, somewhat lighter and less dark, and the better recording does justice to the work as a whole.
This is the first CD release of this version of “Twelve Poems,” as well as the remaining works on Disc 1, “In the Beginning” and “Lark.”
“In the Beginning” is a powerful and moving work; in it, Copland sets 38 verses from the King James Version of the Book of Genesis to music. The 1947 piece was written for a Harvard Symposium, and this 1965 performance features the New England Conservatory Chorus, Mildred Miller the featured mezzo, Copland conducting. Pollack refers to “In the Beginning” as a “text painting,” and it’s an apt description. Copland masterfully matches the music to the text, both of which rise to an inspiring climax when God’s breath gives life to man’s soul.
“Lark” is a somewhat didactic piece, written in 1938 with text by the socialist poet Genevieve Taggard. Baritone Robert Hale fronts the New England Conservatory Chorus in this 1965 performance of one of Copland’s most obscure works.
“The Tender Land,” an opera in two acts, was written in 1952 and expanded to three acts in 1954; it’s the only full opera Copland wrote. He produced it with a television production in mind, although it has not to this date ever been produced as such. This 1965 recording features Copland conducting the New York Philharmonic, with the Choral Art Society under the direction of William Jonson. It is appearing on CD for the first time.
The full version of the opera clocks in at 1 hour, 40 minutes; this abridged version is about 65 minutes long, filling all of Disc 2.
The opera tells the story of Laurie, a farm girl set to graduate from high school. Two hoboes appear the day before graduation, are reluctantly hired by Laurie’s Grandpa to help with the spring harvest, and are invited by Laurie to her graduation party that night. She and one of the men, Martin, fall in love and plan to elope the next morning. The idea is thwarted by the other man, Top — until this point a sinister figure with what seem to be darker designs on Laurie — who successfully argues that the itinerant life is not for this beautiful girl. The two men leave alone, but the encounter has firmed up in Laurie a desire to strike out on her own, away from the strictures of rural life and her grandfather’s suspicious, old-fashioned ways; in the final scene, she leaves alone to seek a new life.
The story can be seen as a metaphor for America in the middle of the 20th Century. No longer a rural, agricultural nation of family farmers, the country, Copland seems to say, needs to leave behind its xenophobic, isolationist ways and take its place in the larger world as a mature member of the civilized nations.
I’m not a big opera fan, but I found much of “The Tender Land” beguiling and entertaining. Copland, as he was famous for doing, draws on folk melodies and rustic sounds to evoke the farm, the countryside and its inhabitants, combining them with jazzy rhythms and classical textures. Laurie’s first encounter with the two men is amusingly rendered, as the two men’s details of their travels overcome her caution in talking with strangers. “We’ve been north, we’ve been south,” Martin and Top sing, in a sweeping and energetic duet. The dance at the end of Act II, which starts with one of the men singing “Stomp your foot upon the floor,” is reminiscent of Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s “Farmer and Cowman” song in “Oklahoma,” but this one contrasts the ways of men and women.
The liner notes to Volume 3 have some curious errors. Genevieve Taggard is listed as the librettist for “The Tender Land,” which actually was written by Copland’s companion, Erik Johns, under a pseudonym. The notes also incorrectly state that Disc 1 contains Copland’s “Canticle of Freedom,” which must have been dropped after Pollack wrote the notes.
I’m a little troubled by the double appearance across Volumes 2 and 3 of the Songs and Poems. The mono versions may be historically valuable, but the presence of two different versions of these major works makes it unlikely that any but completists would purchase the entire set. That and the fact that Pollack himself in his book says that this version of “In the Beginning” is not considered nearly the best of recordings of this work, greatly reduce the value of Volume 3 in my eyes.
Of course, repackaging and reissuing of an artist’s works is rampant in the world of both popular and classical CDs these days. In that, Sony is no more guilty than anyone else, and in this instance, at least with the first two volumes, A Copland Celebration provides a good overview of many of Copland’s most important works, and a welcome exposure to some of the more obscure but still deserving pieces.
(Sony Music, 2000)