Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Aaron Copland and the Symphony

Apart from quoting a couple of things he said, I haven't written about Aaron Copland before on this blog. This week's edition of Tom Service's symphony guide at the Guardian is devoted to his Symphony No. 3, written immediately after the end of the Second World War. Tom keeps surprising me with his choices and makes me realize just how many hundreds of symphonies there are out there that I have never heard a note of!

This is a fine and listenable symphony, very much in Copland's "populist" style. The last movement is based on his Fanfare for the Common Man which I am familiar with, of course. I recommend reading Tom's article introducing the symphony and listening to the whole piece. He has links to other performances, but I will embed here Leonard Bernstein's recording of the last movement with the New York Philharmonic:



There is more to be said, of course. For one thing, there was a fierce competition with William Schumann and Roy Harris among others to write the "Great American Symphony". And, following Beethoven's example in his Symphony No. 3, it needed to be an heroic one. It is acknowledged that Copland won that competition! The symphony was written between the D-Day landings in Europe in the summer of 1944 and the summer of 1946, just after America had won the war in the Pacific with Japan by dropping two atomic bombs on Japanese cities. This triumph also brought anxiety as the whole world now had to live with the possibility of nuclear destruction as the Soviet Union soon had its own bomb. Also, the Cold War between the West and East began soon after the end of the war. Churchill's speech announcing that an "Iron Curtain" had fallen across Eastern Europe was made in March 1946.

As a consequence of the Cold War a hunt began in the US to root out supposed communist sympathizers. One of these was the German composer Hanns Eisler who had fled the Nazis in 1933 and lived in Hollywood. He was deported in 1948 for being a communist. Copland came close to being guilty by association as he was mentioned in an interview by Eisler as being a person with "progressive ideas" which made him suspect. Copland was also photographed at a conference in New York in 1949 with the composer Dmitri Shostakovich who was traveling as a cultural ambassador for the Soviet Union. This conference was a holdover from the wartime alliance, but the publication of the photo in Life magazine under the headline "Dupes and Fellow Travelers Dress Up Communist Fronts" did Copland's career no good! Ironically, Shostakovich was also in disgrace after the 1948 denouncing for "formalism".

Shostakovich (center) and Copland (right) in New York in 1949

After all this, Copland was not going to risk any more "populism" which could all too easily be termed sympathy for communism. Indeed, a performance of A Lincoln Portrait that was scheduled to be given at the inauguration of President Eisenhower in 1953 was canceled because of Copland's "questionable affiliations." Around this time, pressured by ultimately being called to testify at the infamous hearings of the McCarthy subcommittee, Copland made a major change in his musical style, turning away from the tonality of his populist works to the austerity of twelve-tone composition. Here is the first movement of his Piano Quartet, composed in 1950:


Withdrawing from the populism of tonality to the Ivory Tower of "pure art" (symbolized by serialism) was a way for Copland and other American composers to avoid being drawn into the political battles of the post-war period.

It is just one of the political and aesthetic complexities of the Cold War that the CIA funded the European avant-garde after the war as an effort to demonstrate the superiority of Western aesthetic procedures over the socialist realism of the Soviet Union. Much as the scientific expertise of Albert Einstein and the Manhattan Project (which gave rise to the atomic bomb) demonstrated the superiority of Western science over that of the communists.

Copland wrote his Symphony No. 3 in a sincere attempt to capture the heroic feeling around the end of the war. At around the same time Shostakovich wrote his Symphony No. 9: originally intended to be a heroic celebration of the end of the war as well, it turned out quite differently. Shostakovich, while certainly capable of disingenuous celebrations in the mode of socialist realism such as we see in his Symphonies Nos. 11 and 12, at this moment in time, he just couldn't do it and instead wrote a more classical symphony full of wit and irony. This is the lightest and most cheerful symphony he ever wrote. He just couldn't bring himself to write something puffed up and pompous on this occasion. Here is Leonard Bernstein conducting the piece:


6 comments:

Bridge said...

It's simplistic and almost self-refuting to say he turned to "the austerity of twelve-tone composition" to avoid being the target of the McCarthy witch hunts. The piece itself has abundant tonal implications and is actually not very far removed from his earlier works at all. In fact, I would say it is pretty "populist (which is not a term I like because it trivializes the music)" on its own terms, similar to Alban Berg's music. It's not "crazy modern music" in any sense and would be (and probably is) rejected by many.

And just listen to his Piano Variations from 1930:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i1-vIw_M-Qg

This is before McCarthy and yet is even more dissonant than the piece you linked and not even serialist. So what, was this a foreshadowing of his inevitable downfall into ideology or what? The ultimate point is that his music, whether tonal or no, is not essentially different and there is cohesion throughout. It's in my opinion erroneous to call his "populist" works exactly that because it clearly ignores the point. It uses traditional American folk idioms and are essentially tonal, but use the most modern of the modern techniques of composition, including polyrhythms (with heavy syncopation) and poyltonality, expressive use of biting dissonance and tonal ambiguity. The melodies may be singable, but it's not music that's supposed to "pander to the masses" it's actually very dense and intricate. The Piano Variations I linked are not different. It's actually a profoundly beautiful piece despite the sharp dissonances.

So, yeah, as always your interpretation of history which paints "modernism" as a great poison that corrupts all fails to convince me. Not that there isn't a certain degree of truth in it taken as a whole, but your descriptions just go way too far and personally I don't see it in the case of Copland and Stravinsky and others. 12-tone was just another creative outlet for them.

Bryan Townsend said...

There wasn't much "interpretation" of the history in this post. I was pretty much just trying to lay out the historical context. I can give references for everything I say. But yes, Aaron Copland did move back and forth between a more austere style, exemplified by the Piano Variations of 1930, and a more populist style. I don't think anyone (other than yourself) has a problem with calling his pieces like the Fanfare for the Common Man, the Symphony No. 3 or the Lincoln Portrait "populist" as they were certainly intended as such by Copland himself. Copland moved back and forth from a more abstract style to a more popular style his whole life. But all these styles are united in some way by being characteristically Copland. And I don't see his populist style as being at all "pandering", by the way.

I never said modernism was "a great poison", either. Though I do have a lot of thoughts about it. You seem to want to insist that even when composers, like Copland, are working surrounded by a welter of political events and pressures that there is never any impact on their work. I think that music does have an historical context--though not a simplistic one!

Bridge said...

"And I don't see his populist style as being at all "pandering", by the way."

What does "populist" even mean then? The reason why I have a problem with the term is because in this context it is so absurdly loaded. The way I read your post was that after a lengthy period of "populism" which is purely good he was forced to switch to serialism and his music died. It is impossible to say there is no such connotation, this theme being prevalent throughout many of your postings.

"You seem to want to insist that even when composers, like Copland, are working surrounded by a welter of political events and pressures that there is never any impact on their work."

No, not really. I mean, that is a matter of fact. It doesn't matter whether I agree or disagree because the truth is nonnegotiable. The reason I reject the implications is because it is entirely irrelevant to me. I can't think of any music that is better explained by its historical context than by its own artistic logic because art is not completely arbitrated by its environment. When you say things like, and I paraphrase: "Copland switched to a more modernist style, abandoning his populism to avoid being painted as a communist sympathizer" I just feel you trivialize the composer and his music. Disregarding the fact that there is clear continuity from point A to point B, how pathetic does it make Copland to completely abandon what he believes in on a whim and start writing soulless music for the modernist machine? It's not becoming of a great artist like Copland. That of course in itself is disregarding the implications of "populism," that he had already given up what he believed in to be artificially more popular (but I'll give that a pass because we are evidently in agreement.)

I mean, perhaps I am just overly defensive of "modernism" but whenever you comment on it I can't help but sense a thick layer of ironic (and sometimes not so ironic) condescension. Is that my fault? I'm not sure, but it is abundantly inferable from your words if you ask me.

Bryan Townsend said...

Let me try and sort out what our disagreement is. We do have different opinions about the aesthetics and quality of at least some of the music in the modernist part of the 20th century. Which is fine. But I think if you look back at my post you will see that I'm not expressing much in the way of opinions there. I'm not saying, for example, that Copland's music "died" when he was writing serial music. I agree with you that it has a lot of the flavor of his non-serial music. Like Berg, he wrote serial music that had some of the qualities of non-serial music.

So I can't quite see why you are so upset with a post in which I am just trying to cite some interesting history. Do you want to claim that the facts are wrong? That the inaugural performance of the Lincoln Portrait was not canceled? That Copland was not hauled before MacCarthy's subcommittee? That Life magazine didn't print the photo with the damning headline? That he wasn't subjected to a great deal of political pressure? That in his later works he turned more to serialism than in his earlier works?

And finally, I don't think that mentioning that a composer is affected by political pressure is to trivialize his work. The career of Shostakovich contains many episodes where he was subjected to immense pressure: performances were canceled, publishing delayed and his income suffered accordingly. In the face of the first denunciation in 1936, he withdrew the score of the Symphony No. 4 which was about to be performed. Wikipedia has an account of this here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schostakowitsch#Withdrawal_of_the_Fourth_Symphony

I don't think that simply doing the prudent thing to save yourself from being shunned or punished trivializes your music and I never said anything of the kind.

Let me clear up another point: you speak about how you "sense a thick layer of ironic (and sometimes not so ironic) condescension" when I write about modernism. I pretty much always say what I am thinking. I don't hint around about it. If I don't like a piece, I say so. So there should be no doubt. The corollary of this is that if I didn't say it, I didn't mean it.

Here is my position on modernism: just like all other musical idioms, modernism has its strengths and weaknesses. There are pieces and composers that I dislike and I try to say exactly why. There are also modernist pieces and composers that I really like and I try to say exactly why. This policy is also true of all other musical idioms. There are Classical era pieces and composers that I dislike as well. There is Baroque music that I also dislike. In other words, there is good and bad music in every single period. I think I have said this a thousand times!

Bridge said...

First off I would like to apologize, yesterday wasn't exactly a great day and I was a bit impatient and as a result a little more acidic than I might have otherwise been.

"So I can't quite see why you are so upset with a post in which I am just trying to cite some interesting history. Do you want to claim that the facts are wrong? That the inaugural performance of the Lincoln Portrait was not canceled? That Copland was not hauled before MacCarthy's subcommittee? That Life magazine didn't print the photo with the damning headline? That he wasn't subjected to a great deal of political pressure? That in his later works he turned more to serialism than in his earlier works?"

As I said, my opinion is of no consequence because all of those did happen. But there is a certain degree of interpretation when you say A implies B, and I would argue that in this case correlation does not necessarily imply causation. Okay, I'll retract my comments about you saying that him turning to serialism in negative. It was a bit presumptuous on my part and I'm sorry. However, it doesn't make very much sense to me that an artist accused of communist agendas could somehow change to a different style and be absolved of suspicion, to say nothing of serialism - it seems to me the musical avant-garde has always been accused of being toxic. After all, his main audience was patriotic Americans, right? I mean, his music was pretty popular. I call your citations somewhat into doubt but seeing as I haven't examined them myself I can't of course say they are incorrect.

The only thing I'd like to say about Shostakovich is that of course he was under enormous pressure, but no matter how crazy things got in the Red Scare times in the US it certainly cannot be compared to the Soviet Union at its height. There you weren't even persuaded to do as the powers that be said, you were flat out coerced. I remember reading about a piece of choral music Tchaikovsky wrote that was literally burnt at the Tsar's orders. I mean, I'm not exactly an expert on US history and I surely wasn't there at the time, but the worst I've heard about is people being blacklisted or being deported. That in itself is horrible but it's not comparable to summary execution or forced labor. Still, what you say might very well be true. The idea makes me uncomfortable because I don't like such compromises, so I am naturally incredulous. That in itself is not evidence of anything, of course.

Bryan Townsend said...

Bridge, you are a valued contributor to this blog and I look forward to your views. But that doesn't mean I won't debate them with you if I feel they are over the top! So, no need to apologize. Yes, I have to confess that there was at least one sentence where I was perhaps over-interpreting the evidence. That is this one: "After all this, Copland was not going to risk any more "populism" which could all too easily be termed sympathy for communism." I am making an assumption there and it might require some research to substantiate or disprove. My information came largely from Taruskin's volume from the Oxford history: Volume 5, Music in the Late Twentieth Century, pp. 104 - 116 and from the Wikipedia article.

Sure, wildly different situation in the US and Soviet Union. Eisenhower was not going to send Copland to Alaska if he didn't conform. But it was a difficult and unsettled time. I actually think that the music even reveals this to us, though I don't want to draw any close causal connections. I wonder if we might not be tempted to under-rate the kind of pressure economics can bring, though. As a composer, you might be dependent on commissions and whether you get them might partly depend on what your public reputation is.