Program Notes - Nov. 11, 2006
Four Dance Episodes from “Rodeo”
Aaron Copland is considered by many to be the dean of American orchestral composers. A son of immigrant parents, he studied piano while attending Boys’ High in Brooklyn. His father’s successful department store provided him the financial means to study composition wherever he wished, and he eventually made his way to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger. While in Europe, he was exposed to many of the most important composers and musical styles of the twentieth century. One of Aaron Copland’s early musical goals was to create an American musical idiom to rival European serious orchestral music. He wanted to be known as being as “American” as Mussorgsky was “Russian.”
Copland’s music conveniently divides itself into two styles. The accessible ease of his early ballets (such as Rodeo) and music written for films contrast with an astringency in many of his later works that employs atonalism and harsh instrumental sounds. His early music incorporates both American musical language and American melodic themes, and is often written about American subject matter. Such seminal works as the ballet Billy the Kid and the evocative Applachian Spring have made him – at least the style that he employed during that time period – one of the most recognizable American composers.
The ballet Rodeo is one of the best examples of his “popular” style. Its fanciful story line has little substance, but provides a perfect vehicle for the Old West impressions Copland hoped to create. The heroine is a cowgirl trying to attract the attention of any of the cowboys. No matter what she does in the opening Buckaroo Holiday section, they ignore her. She’s just “one of the guys” to them, dressed in blue jeans and a gingham shirt. In the Corral Nocturne, she pines for the attention of one special cowhand, who has overlooked her in favor of a soft, prettified rival with no substance other than her looks. The cowhand, blind to the real qualities of the heroine, has chosen her “Barbie Doll” rival to accompany him to the Saturday Night Waltz.
The heroine has one last chance to win his attention. She appears at the big Saturday night celebration dressed to the hilt in the finery that she’s never worn before. And she “knocks them dead” with her looks. All’s well that ends well, as her cowboy (who has finally noticed her) fends off several jealous suitors and “corrals” her for himself. They join the entire company to dance the final festive dance, the Hoedown. So who caught whom, anyway?
Rhapsody in Blue
George Gershwin may be the single best known American composer. His stages works (mostly musicals) contained songs that dominated American popular vocal music until the rise of the “one performer” pop music scene in the 1950’s. Because his popular music was directed at a universal audience, he reaped financial rewards unheard-of among orchestral composers of his era. Even though he wrote only a few instrumental works, the most famous of them have achieved the same popularity as his songs. His masterpiece for the theatrical stage, Porgy and Bess, is sometimes suggested to be the pinnacle of American opera.
Gershwin was born into a family of Russian immigrants, living in a poor Jewish community in lower Manhattan. When he was ten years old, his parents indulged in a rare luxury: they bought an old upright piano, which would transform young George’s life. He quickly taught himself to play in a rudimentary fashion, and began improvising tunes. His parents recognized his musical interests, and hoping that this might indicate true talent they scraped up enough money to provide him with lessons. He quickly outdistanced the local piano teachers, and began studying keyboard with true professionals. From them he learned not only keyboard technique but the ‘ins and outs’ of the music business.
His early familiarity with the practical aspects of musical life might be considered either a blessing or a curse. He dropped out of school at age sixteen to seek his fortune in Tin Pan Alley, both as pianist and songwriter. His perseverance led him to succeed in a difficult field, where most failed. His first big hit was the song Swanee, recorded in 1920 by vaudeville star Al Jolson. It catapulted Gershwin’s name to prominence, and his career was launched. In time, he would become one of the most successful (and one of the wealthiest) composers ever to emerge onto the American musical scene.
He had already achieved several successes for the Broadway stage when orchestra leader Al Whiteman commissioned him to write and perform a virtuoso piece for piano and jazz orchestra. As a performer Gershwin was a great jazz/pop innovator, so the piano part was easy. However, he lacked real training on other instruments, so his accompaniment (although well conceived for an orchestral sound) had to be completed by Whiteman’s orchestrators. This led to a celebrated collaboration with Ferde Grofé, who would later become a significant orchestral composer in his own right. The result was the famous Rhapsody in Blue, which has become easily the best known piano work ever written in America. Its lush orchestral melodies, especially the main second theme, appear in such far-reaching venues as airline commercials. The opening clarinet solo, with its famous (and fiendishly difficult) glissando slide to the high note, identifies the work instantly to most listeners. The central part of the work is essentially an extended piano solo, written to show off the composer himself. Grofe later re-scored the work for a full symphony orchestral accompaniment, instead of Whiteman’s compact jazz orchestra, and it is this form which we hear today.
Triptych on the American Dream
Today’s program features three works that portray the evolution of the American dream, from the days before the first settlements in the New World to the time when America became a land of hope – drawing immigrants from all over the globe.
Ode to the Virginian Voyage
Randall Thompson was one of the most eminent American composers of the mid twentieth century. Educated at Harvard, he studied with Ernest Bloch among others. He earned the American version of the Prix de Rome, and was twice awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship. His distinguished career included appointments at Wellesley College, University of California at Berkeley, the University of Virginia and Princeton, as well as a tenure as director of the Curtis Institute. He was nearly an exact contemporary of Aaron Copland, and his music is every bit as “American” as that of his more famous colleague, though less familiar.
In 1606 the English poet Michael Drayton penned an epic poem, titled Ode to the Virginian Voyage. In it, he praised the courage of the British settlers who would embark the next year on a journey to colonize the newly discovered world, in what would become the settlement at Jamestown, Virginia. The poem extols the settlers to “Go and Subdue,” promising riches, honor, fame, and the bounty of nature’s largesse, in the land he called “Virginia – Earth’s only paradise.”
Thompson recognized in this epic poem the feeling of challenge and opportunity with which the American continent was viewed from Britain. Here was a chance to leave a feudal society, lacking in opportunity for the common man, and find a new world where one could build a new life. A world where success would depend on one’s own ability, one’s hard work and God’s graces. Virginia was the embodiment of the American dream, in its earliest stages, and Thompson’s Ode evokes the earliest settlers’ challenge to “go and subdue Virginia – Earth’s only paradise!”
The Promise of Living, from “The Tender Land”
Ten years after composing Rodeo, Aaron Copland received a commission from the Rogers and Hammerstein Society for an opera to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the League of Composers. Copland set to work eagerly on the task, but the work took him two full years to complete, growing from a short piece (intended to be paired with another one-act opera) into a full two-act drama. It was premiered in 1954 by the New York City Opera, very successfully. The setting of the opera is a poor Midwestern American farmstead, and the first act extols the plain life and its simple virtues, while preparing the audience for the tension of the ensuing drama. (In the second act the heroine falls in love with a drifter, who jilts her … prompting her to give up her own placid life if favor of the challenge of adventure, so that she finally leaves her home in the ‘tender land’, and strikes out on her own.)
The Promise of Living is a song of thanksgiving. It concludes Act I with a tribute to the simple values by which the people lived: honest labor, a desire to share the earth’s bounty and a love for one’s neighbors. It signifies the American dream as it had been achieved, two and a half centuries after the Virginian voyage of colonization.
Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor
If George Gershwin was not the most versatile and popular American songwriter of the first half of the twentieth century, then surely Irving Berlin was. His output ranged from Broadway musicals to Hollywood films, and often made it into the pop culture as stand-alone songs. He won an academy award (and was nominated for several others) and some of his works rank among the most-recorded songs in history. It is said that it is impossible to celebrate the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter without encountering the music of this Jewish immigrant songwriter. Interestingly, in spite of his genius as a songwriter he could barely read music, and it is a legend that he could only compose songs in a single key – they then had to be transposed to other keys by his assistants.
Berlin was a patriot, through and through. Perhaps because he had come to America as a young boy (his family were Jewish immigrants from Russia) he believed in the American dream. In 1949 he wrote the music for a Broad way show titled “Miss Liberty.” For it, he composed a song based on an inscription on the Statue of Liberty “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor.” The lyrics – from he sonnet The New Colossus, by Emma Lazarus – reflect the new American dream:
a land of freedom, a place of opportunity, a home for the downtrodden, a place to escape a bad life and build a good one. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the retched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.”
The American dream has evolved over the years, as embodied in these three stirring works for chorus and orchestra. Let us hope that it continues to evolve and provide all men with a reason to dream, and a place to make these dreams reality.
Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly