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ClassicsOnline Home » COPLAND, A.: Appalachian Spring Suite / Symphonic Ode / CRESTON, P.: Symphony No. 3, "3 Mysteries" (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)
Aaron Copland’s suite from the ballet Appalachian Spring won him a Pulitzer Prize and global recognition. The famous Quaker song ‘Simple Gifts’ and the American ambience of this suite contrast with the more modernist Symphonic Ode, which conveys rugged grandeur through an uncompromising structural unity. Neglected since the late 1960s, Paul Creston’s music was once amongst the most frequently performed of any American composer. His poetic Symphony No 3 is an orchestral Life of Christ, movingly expressed through themes inspired by Gregorian chant.
By Phil Muse
Audio Video Club of Atlanta
Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
Suite from ‘Appalachian Spring’
Born in Brooklyn, the fifth and youngest child of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Aaron Copland was introduced to music by one of his sisters. By the age of twenty, Copland had saved enough money to go to Paris, where he enrolled in the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau and studied composition with the renowned Nadia Boulanger. During his four years in Europe, Copland immersed himself in the wealth of both traditional and modern music that surrounded him and became determined to develop a sophisticated musical style that was recognizably American.
The challenges of musical life in America between the World Wars required both flexibility and creativity, and Copland and his music evolved. His voice, however, remained consistent and recognizable, featuring contrasting meter and accent and tempering dissonant textures with a strong sense of tonality. By the late 1940s Copland was widely regarded as the foremost American composer of his time.
The Suite from Appalachian Spring, the ballet composed for Martha Graham’s dance company in 1944, is the work that made Copland the first American composer to win global recognition and popularity. First performed on October 4, 1945, by Artur Rodzinski and the New York Philharmonic, the Suite received both the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Critics’ Circle award, and is widely considered Copland’s most impressive achievement in what he called his ‘vernacular style.’ Copland said of Appalachian Spring: ‘…it was [Martha Graham’s] very personal manner that inspired the style of the music. Martha is rather prim and restrained, simple yet strong, and her dance style is correspondingly direct. One thinks of these qualities as being especially American and, thus, the character of my score, which quotes only one actual folk tune, ‘Simple Gifts’, but which uses rhythms, harmonies and melodies that suggest an American ambiance.’ The official synopsis of the ballet reads: ‘a pioneer celebration in spring around a newly-built farmhouse in the Pennsylvania Hills in the early part of the last [ie, nineteenth] century. The bride-to-be and the young farmer-husband enact the emotions, joyful and apprehensive, their new domestic partnership invites. An older neighbor suggests, now and then, the rocky confidence of experience. A revivalist and his followers remind the new householders of the strange and terrible aspects of human fate. At the end the couple are left quiet and strong in their new house.’
While Copland’s fame rests on the accessible Americana of Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, A Lincoln Portrait and other works written between the late 1930s and early 1950s, his output includes a number of works in a more challenging modernist vein. Among them is his Symphonic Ode, commissioned by conductor Serge Koussevitzky to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The Boston Symphony gave the first performance in February 1932. Copland made some revisions to the score in 1956, creating the version we know today. In his autobiography, Copland explained: ‘The title Symphonic Ode is not meant to imply a connection with a literary idea. It is not an ode to anything in particular, but rather a spirit that is to be found in the music itself.’ The work embodied an attempt to ‘write a piece of music with an unbroken logic so thoroughly unified that the very last note bears a relation to the first.’
That structural unity stems from the use of a single melodic idea as material for the entire work. The piece unfolds in one movement with five sections, alternating between slow and fast tempos. Each section is based on a melodic motif that Copland took from his 1926 Nocturne for violin and piano. In that work, the figure had a lyrical, bluesy character. But Copland transformed it so that, at the outset of Symphonic Ode and in the ensuing slow sections, it conveys a rugged grandeur. In the fastpaced portions of the piece, the figure is treated in unusual rhythms and frequently shifting meters.
Although Symphonic Ode has never enjoyed widespread popularity, Copland held it in high regard. ‘I have always regarded the Symphonic Ode as an important work,’ he declared. ‘I tried hard for something there, and I feel that I succeeded in what I attempted.’
Paul Creston (1906-1985)
Symphony No 3
Paul Creston was born Giuseppe Guttoveggio in New York City in 1906. During his childhood Creston visited Sicily with his mother, where he was exposed to the folk-songs and dances of the Sicilian peasants and his love of music was awakened. Upon Creston’s return to the States, he persuaded his parents to let him begin music lessons. The precocious Creston quickly surpassed the abilities of his teacher and by the age of fourteen began to seek his own way. Along with other sons of immigrants, Walter Piston and Peter Mennin, young Giuseppe decided to ‘Americanise’ his name.
While working as an errand-boy, and later as a bank-clerk and as insurance claim examiner, Creston would rise early and work late into the night, practising piano and composing. His first employment as a musician occurred from 1926 to 1929, when he worked as a theater organist for silent movies. In 1933, Creston approached the composer Henry Cowell with his work Seven Theses for piano, and Cowell published the score as part of his New Music Quarterly. Cowell also arranged for Creston to perform his works in a composers’ forum recital at the New School for Social Research in October 1934. Following his debut, commissions and accolades came to the industrious, self-taught composer – two Guggenheim Fellowships in 1938 and 1939, the New York Critics’ Circle Award for Symphony No 1 in 1941, the Music Award of the National Academy of Arts and Letters in 1943, and the Alice M. Ditson Award in 1945.
His international fame spread and his music was, along with that of Gershwin, Barber and Harris, the most frequently performed abroad by an American composer. His work as a teacher provided him with the opportunity to set down his unique theories of music composition, especially rhythm, in his books Principles of Rhythm, Creative Harmony and a massive ten-volume compendium entitled Rhythmicon. By the late 1960s, Creston’s music began to fall into obscurity, losing favour to the more experimental works of the younger avant-garde composers. In 1984, Creston was diagnosed with a malignant tumor, and died in Poway, California on 24 August 1985.
In his Symphony No 3 Creston expressed his deep religious feelings in an orchestral Life of Christ. Premiered by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra on 27 October 1950, virtually all of the major themes are derived from or inspired by Gregorian chant. The symphony opens with a poetic evocation of night. The movement’s main theme is introduced by the horn and is derived from an ancient Gregorian Alleluia. A more dance-like episode follows, with the horn continuing its development of the Alleluia theme, answered antiphonally by the winds. This is followed by a more pastoral episode, featuring solos from the woodwind. The dance material reappears, ending with a series of joyous restatements of the Alleluia theme. The second movement, The Crucifixion, begins with ominous chords in the lower brass and winds, over which a tender melody on the cello is played. A brief, outburst from the full orchestra is followed by an ostinato, in which an atmosphere of hushed tragedy is established. A solemn melody played on the oboe and later by the strings, building in intensity, becomes a militaristic trudging throughout the orchestra and the movement closes with a fragile restatement of the chant-like melody in violin harmonics. A shimmer of high strings open The Resurrection, as another chant-inspired melody rises out of the cellos and basses. Regal horns harmonize the chant, which is then played on trumpet with the accompaniment of a harp. A faster, antiphonal passage between woodwinds and strings leads to a livelier section with hushed, murmuring strings playing as the chant is taken up and fragmented in the wind and brass. The movement ends with a glorious statement of the chant, harmonized in the brass, while the violins hover excitedly in their upper register.
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