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New York comes to Stratford: Themes and variations

5 December 2017: Stratford ArtsHouse

  • Aaron Copland – Music for Movies
  • Pedro H da Silva – Portuguese Guitar Concerto [world premiere]
  • Lucía Caruso – ‘Clouds’, for piano and orchestra
  • Aaron Copland – Music for the Theatre

Both George Gershwin and Aaron Copland were born in Brooklyn, New York: Gershwin in September 1898; Copland in November 1900. Having both played the piano from an early age, both went on to study composition with Rubin Goldmark – who had once been a pupil of Antonín Dvořák. However, whilst Gershwin remained in America (producing, among other things, a string of successful musicals), in 1920 Copland moved to France, to study with Nadia Boulanger. While there, he was introduced to many European composers – including Igor Stravinsky – and began to realize that, whereas he could easily identify music as, say, ‘French’, or ‘Russian’, there was no immediately recognizable ‘American’ style.

He therefore set out to deliberately create such a language (and “purge” his music of its European influences). Thus, when he returned to the US in 1924 (the year of Rhapsody in Blue), he looked to jazz as a key ingredient. It certainly permeates (if not dominates) this concert’s Music for the Theatre (strangely, Copland preferred the British spelling) – and is the first piece to sound so obviously ‘by Copland’ (as we now know him). “I was anxious to write a work that would immediately be recognized as American in character,” he later recollected. While no particular dramatic device was involved, Copland said that he chose the title because “the music seemed to suggest a certain theatrical atmosphere”. Labelled a “suite in five parts for small orchestra” (not to mention an expansive percussion section!), it received its first performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra on 20 November 1925.

But there is a great deal more to Copland’s music than ‘all that jazz’. Indeed, that genre’s influence dissipated soon afterwards; and other constituents – especially those derived from American ‘folk’ and ‘popular’ music – started to come to the fore. These can clearly be heard in later masterpieces such as Rodeo, Billy the Kid, and Appalachian Spring – music which is readily identifiable as both Copland’s, and, therefore, as ‘American’.

Although Stateside ‘classical’ music has also moved on – think of John Adams or Milton Babbitt – it could be suggested that Copland was, perhaps, too successful in propagating his national idiom. Nearly a century later, and so many film scores still owe him their existence. Thankfully, his own Music for Movies – which opens this concert – stands head and shoulders above those who try to mimic his matchless style.

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