IN THE HOLLOW OF WINTER TWILIGHT
In the hollow of winter twilight
The ground of the soul is darkened,
A shallow breath will do.
Floods earth and sky,
Black bare-armed trees,
Now softened in this sullen light,
To clothe, us too, with longing.
True winter has begun
This season of scarcity, silence,
Survival never assured us,
The very thinness of air,
A sharp, searing bitter breath of air,
The inhaled pain alerts us to life.
No excited cries of birds,
No rumble of young squirrels
Turning tree hollows into hide and seek.
Only faint tracks in the layered snow
Gives evidence of life,
Small three-point, delicate prints
As if a creature bounded on tiptoe.
There is little left to do
In this darkened ground of time
But rest before the fire
And fill the hollow of the season
With hope, patience and desire.
Thanksgiving, Aaron Copeland and a poem….
It is Thanksgiving, a particularly American holiday. There are harvest festivals the world around, but nothing quite like the combination of elements that go into the American Thanksgiving. I put on Aaron Copeland’s “Appalachian Spring”, and something transforms in the heart. It is an attitude of gratefulness for so many things. Looking outside to the huge oaks and pecans, I am comforted by the bounty of Nature. I am part of that Nature. Again, music expands the soul.
It’s a beautiful, cold, rain filled Autumn. Copeland is perfect background music for the day’s activities. Or evening. There is such a poignancy and tenderness in Copeland. It sets the heart and humours in the right direction to get on with the day.
This is a love letter to Aaron Copeland. For those not familiar with our quintessential American composer, this entry isn’t going to help much, but a couple of cds of his will.
I have always loved Copeland, but just like most people with a little bit of musical training, didn’t really know much about him or the genesis of his music. I do now.
Nothing is better than his well-known “Appalachian Spring”, composed as a ballet in 1943 for Martha Graham. This was Copeland’s third dance score, based on a pastoral about the 19th century American religious sect, called “Shakers”. The name came from the poet, Hart Crane, another iconic American ‘composer’. The Appalachians are in the middle South, mostly mountainous country. Copeland composed full length hymns of his own, climaxing with the known Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts”.
Copeland’s music is very distinctive, and immediately the tonal, chordal qualities are recognizable. At least to Americans who have grown up with his music. I could recognize some of the compositional issues, this long, lyrical line, long bow, long breaths with the woodwinds, and the strings…a long, legato, strung together with such delicate phrasing. Or so it seemed to me.
I started to search around more for where Copeland’s music originated, because there is always a beginning to things, an influence, usually several or many influences, and in the arts, this is rather common. I discovered that Copeland, while we think is American music at its best, well, the early influences are rather Germanic. One of his most influential teachers was Nadia Boulanger, who in particular emphasized ‘la grande ligne” (the long line). This makes sense, and accounts for Copeland’s graceful lyricism. But even more, he expressed this sense of forward motion, the feeling for inevitability, for creating an entire piece that had little seams…or none at all.
Copeland stated that ‘ideal music’ to him might combine Mozart’s spontaneity and refinement with Palestrina’s purity and Bach’s profundity. There is more in his line, though, Copeland’s: there is a regal elegance and an unforced dignity. The expressive content is more formed on ‘feeling’ than technical points. This is an amazing freedom of composition, and not usually so facile.
Copeland spent a lot of the Depression in Europe, especially Paris. This gave him a chance to explore American jazz divorced from America. He said that listening to jazz in Austria was like hearing it for the first time. But jazz, although quintessentially American, was limited for Copland. He used it in the 20’s and 20’s , then turned to Latin and American folk music in the 40’s.
There are other influences you can pick up in Copeland, if you have enough of an ear…or have heard enough other music. Stravinsky’s rhythm and vitality is obvious in much of Copeland’s works: jagged and uncouth rhythmic effects, bold use of dissonance, and a hard, dry crackling sonority.
I hear this last in his “Billy the Kid” based on the American gunfighter. The gunfighter, the quick turns and changes like a paint pony on a dime…these are borrowed from Stravinsky.
But back to “Appalachian Spring”. Prokofiev’s fresh, clean-cut, legato line and articulate style is in there, too.
There is a powerhouse of American influence in the 20’s-50’s with Copeland, John Steinbeck, Virgil Thomson, all composers and writers trying to express the fundamental American sight and sound.
Perhaps it’s easiest to think of Copeland for his optimistic tone, his poly rhythms, poly harmony that reflect the jumpy energy, the forward motion of the American life then, before we became couch potatoes. Even the silences are filled with purpose, expectation and expressiveness to come. This forward motion again.
Copeland composed on a large canvas with a directness in sentiment, when a time where sentimental music was not pushed away, when it expressed the goodness in humankind and the future.
It will come as a surprise, that this classical “New England” composer, who wrote Western music and New England pastoral ballets was a New York Jew. His father was Lithuanian, and changed his name from Kaplan.
Asked how a New York Jew could capture so well the Old West? Copland answered: “ It was just a feat of imagination.”
An imagination that expressed the enormous power and scope of a new and throbbing nation.
It’s all in there, a powerful landscape made into the intangible except to the heart.
The leitmotiv of a young nation.
This article is dedicated to my friend, Nick, for all the right reasons.