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A Conductor Reflects on the American Classics: CFA at Symphony Hall

Part three: Aaron Copland and the great American symphony

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symphony-byMichaelLutch.jpg

The BU Symphony Orchestra and Symphonic Chorus perform music by Ives, Barber, and Copland tonight. Photo by Michael Lutch

Tonight, the Boston University Symphony Orchestra and SymphonicChorus will perform the first of two annual concerts at Boston’sSymphony Hall. More than 250 musicians — mostly from the College ofFine Arts school of music, but representing other BU schools andcolleges as well — rehearse for weeks preparing for the performance,which Ann Howard Jones, a CFA professor of music and director of choralactivities, describes as an “experience that can set a standard bywhich all of their music-making can be measured.”

“The goals forthe performance are to reach artistic heights that are enhanced byplaying and singing in a hall where the musicians can really hearthemselves,” she says. “A young performer’s musical education is notcomplete without excellent performance of music of the highest possiblequality.”

Tonight’s concert features works by American composers, including Charles Ives’ Psalm 90, Samuel Barber’s Prayers of Kierkegaard,and Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony. David Hoose, a CFA professor ofmusic and director of orchestral activities, will conduct theorchestra, and mezzo-soprano Penelope Bitzas, a CFA associate professorof music, will be the soloist. Hoose shares his thoughts on the workswith BU Today; below, he discusses Copland’s World War II–era reflection on America. Click here to read his reflection on Charles Ives’ role in furthering the American classical tradition in the early 20th century and here to read about Samuel Barber’s iconoclastic style and religious themes.

Theperformance takes place at 8 p.m. at Symphony Hall, 301 MassachusettsAve., Boston. Tickets are $35, $20, and $10 and are available at theSymphony Hall box office, 617-266-1200, and the Tsai Performance Centerbox office, 617-353-8724. For more information, click here.

Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony
By David Hoose

“I hope you will knuckle down to a good symphony. We deserve it of you, and your career is all set for it. Forza!”Samuel Barber’s letter to Aaron Copland, dated September 16, 1944, wasnot unique. Many of Copland’s musician friends, including ElliottCarter, Arthur Berger, and David Diamond, had been pushing him sincethe late 1930s to write “the great American symphony.”

“Make it a real KO symphony,” Diamond urged. “And do, please use the fanfare material.”

Asthe strongest American musical voice, Aaron Copland was the rightperson to evoke the optimism, confidence, and energy that was beingreawakened by the approaching end of World War II. And so, between 1944and 1946, on commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation, he createdhis largest orchestral work, his Third Symphony, a grand panorama ofpersonal and public emotion. Copland, though reluctant to attach aspecific program to it, wrote that the music “intended to reflect theeuphoric spirit of the country at the time.” And from its 1946 BostonSymphony Orchestra premiere onward, the symphony did just that. ToLeonard Bernstein, it became “an American monument, like the WashingtonMonument or the Lincoln Memorial or something.”

Irving Fine,perhaps the generation’s most gifted composer, wrote, “It has some ofthe noblest music you have ever written, which means some of the mostinspired music of our generation.” And the ever-observant andarticulate Berger called Copland’s symphony a “glorified and expansivehymn — of prayer, of praise, of sorrow, of patriotic sentiment.”

TheThird Symphony is scored for large orchestra and is laid out in fourlarge movements. The first (Berger’s “prayer”), a slow movementcontaining the seeds of the entire symphony, begins with the quietsimplicity of the Great Plains’ wide open spaces. In several sweepingwaves, however, the music tightens and darkens into a grim violencereminiscent of the music of Dmitri Shostakovich (who thought Copland’ssymphony “too eclectic”). Eventually, the gnarled tension releases, andthe movement’s easy restraint returns.

Strident calls break thequiet, and in the second movement (Berger’s “praise”), a scherzolaunches — variously perky, ferocious (with the flavor of Sovietcomposer Sergei Prokofiev), and hoedown foot-stomping. Just as thehymn-like music of Charles Ives’ Psalm 90 and the chant-like music of Samuel Barber’s Prayers of Kierkegaardwere created entirely by those composers, the music in the ThirdSymphony is all Copland, though it may not all sound so; that in thewhole of the symphony he uses no existing folk or popular music showsjust how thoroughly he could inhabit and make his own the spirit of allAmerican music. At the center of the scherzo, a tender dance appears,but the piano slyly pushes it aside to revive the busyness from thebeginning. Then, in a tremendous climax, the endearing music from themiddle returns, now thoroughly transformed (the personal madeuniversal), and with the jabbing calls of the opening, the movementsearingly ends.

Like the first two movements, the third(Berger’s “sorrow”) is in an arched design. The outer sections containthe most chromatic, searching music of the symphony, and the middlesection, the most unabashedly upbeat. The transitions between these twoworlds are masterful. The music shifts from doubt to confidence withreluctance and uncertainty, until the prospect of joy can finally nolonger be pushed aside. And, at the other end, apprehension reaches itssinewy arm back into the optimistic spirit and gets its grip before itcan be noticed. Holding its breath, the music hovers treacherouslyuntil a comforting “amen” resolves some of the tension. Without pause,the last movement, the largest and most complex of all, begins itsjourney.

Within moments of the movement’s tentative opening measures, the Fanfare for the Common Man,the music David Diamond had pleaded with Copland to include, makes itsstunning announcement. Throughout the entire symphony the fanfare’smotifs had always been present, sometimes lurking in the background,sometimes trying to thrust into the foreground, and so its overtappearance here, while not the inevitable result of a cumulativeprocess, is not wholly unprepared. But Copland was gutsy to place his1942 Fanfare here — at the beginning of the last movement — forsuch powerful and definitive music could have made going on prettydifficult. A more cautious composer might have saved such brilliantmusic for a triumphal close, but Copland was determined to work out theatypical musical problems that its placement created. After all, thismusic was not written to celebrate the coming military and politicalvictory, but instead to honor the strength of human effort.

Coplandwas clear about his reasons for dedicating his fanfare to the commonman: he was the one, “after all, who was doing all the dirty work inthe war and the army.” The fanfare’s title and its placement in thissymphony reflect Copland’s populism that was looking toward a postwarlife of international cooperation and of social justice for all, avision invoked by President Franklin Roosevelt’s and Vice PresidentHenry Wallace’s Four Freedoms — freedom of speech, freedom of religion,freedom from fear, and freedom from economic want. It was a 1942 radioaddress by Wallace, a speech titled “The Price of Free World Victory:the Century of the Common Man,” that had given Copland the fanfare’stitle. But the century did not fulfill that promise. The Fanfare for the Common Man and the symphony in which it found its home celebrate not the end, but the beginning of a challenge.

Howeverapt Arthur Berger’s monikers for the first three movements may be, thislast, wide-reaching movement is far more than patriotic sentiment. Itis indisputably filled with pride, but its vivid joy, its irrepressiblevitality, and even its grinding climax — a reminder of the horror theentire world had been enduring — were not just for America. Nor onlyfor the military victors. The spirit of hope was for the everyman andthe everywoman, who had suffered, was suffering, and would suffer. TheCopland Third Symphony looks beyond its moment toward a world thatwould embrace all of the Four Freedoms.

The 1960s would bring afight for freedom of speech. The past two decades have seen forcesdevoted to freedom of religion. And much of the world is now seeking afreedom from fear. Whether the world will ever find the generosity tocommit itself to the battle for everyperson’s freedom from economicwant is uncertain. That battle, sometimes thwarted by the very peoplewho proclaim the other freedoms, has yet to be won, or even faithfullywaged. Perhaps someday we will admit that none of the freedoms are safeabsent any other. In the meantime, Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony livesas a thrilling reminder of a time when an extraordinary vision laybefore the world and as a continuing evocation of what might still beachieved in prayer, in praise, in sorrow, in selfless generosity.

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