Biography

In 1922, composition teacher Nadia Boulanger introduced conductor Serge Koussevitzky to one of her young American students. From that moment, Koussevitzky and Aaron Copland forged a reciprocal collaboration that lasted until Koussevitzky’s death in 1951. Koussevitzky championed Copland’s music and taught him the nuances of conducting; in turn, Copland encouraged Koussevitzky to program American composers. In the summer of 1944, Copland began writing the Third Symphony, his last commission from Koussevitzky’s Foundation.


“I knew exactly the kind of music he [Koussevitzky] enjoyed conducting and the sentiments he brought to it,” said Copland, “and I knew the sound of his orchestra, so I had every reason to do my darndest to write a symphony in the grand manner.” Although Copland denied any ideological basis for the Symphony, one cannot help hearing this music as the victorious cheer of a country emerging from a devastating war. At the premiere, Copland acknowledged as much, noting the Third Symphony “intended to reflect the euphoric spirit of the country at the time.”

 

Copland characterized the Molto moderato as “broad and expressive.” It features three “plainly stated” themes – the epic sweep of the strings’ opening music; a gentler second melody, sung by violas and oboes; and a third, muscular statement for the brasses. All the themes of the subsequent movements evolve from the first (string) and third (brass) melodies in this movement. A forceful tympanic boom signals the beginning of the Allegro molto, which Copland termed “the usual scherzo, with first part, trio and return.” The spacious optimism of the primary theme, a series of ascending notes in the brasses, coupled with the dynamic rhythms and overall vitality of this movement, evoke Copland’s ballets, particularly Appalachian Spring and Rodeo. In the introspective Andantino quasi allegretto, high strings wander through an empty landscape, like soldiers stumbling over a bloody battlefield. A solo flute intones a melody that binds the rest of the movement together with, as Copland explains, “quiet singing nostalgia, then faster and heavier – almost dance-like; then more childlike and naïve, and finally more vigorous and forthright.” As the third movement’s various themes weave and coalesce, they produce a half-conscious sense of déjà vu – have we heard this before? The third movement dissolves into the finale with woodwinds repeating a theme present in the preceding movements. This melody shifts slightly, morphing into Fanfare for the Common Man.

 

Today the Fanfare is Copland’s most recognized work, but in 1944 it was little known. Copland composed it in 1942, on a commission from Eugene Goossens, music director of the Cincinnati Symphony. When Goossens premiered it, Copland wrote an explanation of the title in the program notes: “It was the common man, after all, who was doing all the dirty work in the war and the army. He deserved a fanfare.” The Fanfare worked perfectly as the heroic finale Copland wanted to represent the Allied victory in WWII. The flutes and clarinets introduce the basic theme, before the brasses

and percussion burst forth with the version most familiar to audiences. Koussevitzky stated categorically that Copland’s Third Symphony was the finest American symphony ever written, and Leonard Bernstein opined, “The Symphony has become an American monument, like the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial.”

Discography

George Antheil, Walter Piston, Aaron Copland - Spirit of the American Range

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