Copland Symphony No 3. Some thoughts I had on this magnificent and underplayed symphony. I conducted this work in Sydney earlier this year and you can hear it live tonight in Christchurch alongside works by Gershwin and John Adams.
Music has a powerful capacity to make us think. It can convey emotions, paint pictures, even describe the characteristics of people. Music also has the power to inspire actions. Through history political and social causes have used music to motivate and bond people to ideals. Composers have been well aware of this power. Beethoven springs to mind as someone who incorporates the music of the French Revolution into his greatest art works. His final symphony is designed as an anthem for the unity of all humanity.
So which more recent composers have sought to convey political ideals through their music? Some examples would include Shostakovich whose struggles with Soviet censorship and propaganda are well known. His protests are in his music. Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski addresses the relationship between the individual and the state in his Cello Concerto. The music of Elgar invokes the opulence and majesty of the British Empire, Sibelius with his Finlandia, and so the list goes on.
In America Aaron Copland is credited with pioneering a unique American ‘sound’ in composition. It was one which reflected the landscape, the history of colonisation and independence, but most of all it described American people and their ideals. After initially writing very complex and inaccessible music, Copland made a conscious decision to write music for all people. He realised that he could write music devoid of pretension and capable of connecting with people from all walks of life and levels of musical appreciation. He dignified the ‘common’ man in America – the factory worker, the farm labourer, the person leading a dignified working life. He sought to honour these people through his music. This in itself can be interpreted as a political statement from a highly politically aware composer. Only seven years later he was hauled in to testify in the soviet-style witch hunt of Joseph McCarthy’s anti communist hearings.
Humanity and unity is really what Copland’s third symphony is all about. It was written at the conclusion of the World War Two, a time of great progress and optimism in America. Modern America was in the process of inventing itself under the ‘new deal’ of Franklin Roosevelt. All were invited to participate in the American Dream and share in the idea that all was possible. There is a goodness that this symphony holds too, Copland’s belief that American people were inherently good people, or at least at their best when guided by optimism and positivity.
So what relevance does this music have in the modern world? On the one hand it may seem completely irrelevant given the path America has since taken, one that seems to have diverged greatly from the potential of Copland’s America. On the other hand there has never been a more important time to be reminded of what America has long wished to be defined by – it’s ideals. The best of the American spirit is defined by a sense of hope, freedom, equality and possibility. These ideals are not just American ideals, they are ones that we can all relate and aspire to.
The famous ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ forms the nucleus of this symphony. The open intervals of 2nds, 4ths and 5ths are abundant and yet the music is highly original and richly complex. You can hear all of Copland’s inspirations – the hoedowns of the Wild West, the religious purity of the early settlers, the openness of the landscape. But most of all you can hear a composer inspiring and celebrating a people to be at their best – to love, to share, to strive, to be united together. And while the world remains utterly imperfect, hopeless even, it’s the job of music and art to remind us all never to stop trying.