Last night the featured work at the San Francisco Symphony (MTT conducting) was Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony. You’re probably thinking you don’t know it. But if you’ve heard Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, you do. The symphony is a 40-minute riff on that signature piece.
(And yes, I’m aware that the version I linked to is conducted by James Levine, recently dismissed from the Metropolitan Opera for alleged sexual abuse of young male musicians. He’s probably a nasty guy, but I tend to judge musicians by their art, not their lifestyle. Otherwise I’d never be able to hear good music.)
Even if you’re an American who doesn’t care for classical music (like 98% of your contemporaries), the Third Symphony is easy to like because it sounds so recognizably American. Copland, George Gershwin, and others had been incorporating jazz into their classical works since the 1920s to create a distinctively American sound, but it was Copland who went the step beyond and earned the title “Dean of American Composers.”
You couldn’t imagine a less likely father of the American classical idiom. The composer of Billy the Kid, Rodeo, Lincoln Portrait, and Appalachian Spring was a left-wing, gay Jewish man from Brooklyn. In its own small way, it’s as unlikely as a coarse, mean-spirited billionaire from Queens defining the American political idiom.
It’s not as if Copland roamed the backwoods for local folk tunes, either. Quite the contrary: he finished his musical education in Paris under the avant garde Nadia Boulanger (who desperately needs a movie made about her). But with the introduction of new media — radio, phonograph records, and movies with sound — plus the advent of the Great Depression, Copland sought a style accessible to a wider audience. Or, as he put it, “I felt that it was worth the effort to see if I couldn’t say what I had to say in the simplest possible terms.”
The Third Symphony is simple, but it’s not simplistic. If you listened to the Fanfare, composed in 1942, you know it has a modernist edge; it’s not always in key. Same with the Third Symphony, although its dissonances are quickly resolved. There’s a moment two-thirds of the way through the final movement when the orchestra hits a loud, prolonged, ominous note — a reference, in my mind, to the halt of the American Dream by the Depression. But within seconds, fluttery flutes bring back tonality, and shortly thereafter the Fanfare theme returns decisively, with triplets in the percussion section ringing like hammers on steel — American resilience given sonic form.
Both the Fanfare, written in support of the war effort, and the Third Symphony, completed just after the war’s end, reflect a wholesome patriotism. Copland traveled the world on behalf of the US State Department, and joined in condemnation of Stalin for the repression of his colleague Shostakovich. Yet Copland himself soon faced government intimidation. In 1953 he was dragged before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and interrogated by Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn — the latter Donald Trump’s mentor.
McCarthy and Cohn represented a different kind of common man. Perhaps it’s a coincidence that Copland abandoned his populist style around that time. But I’m thinking not.
Snaps to Michael Tilson Thomas for moderating the Third Symphony’s sentimental overtones and striving for a crisp, clean sound. The results were exhilarating. And the performance was recorded, so in a few months you’ll be able to hear it too. What a great way to honor the Dean of American Composers.