Posts Tagged ‘Stravinsky’

“Use of Power for a GOOD Purpose”

May 14, 2009

Nope, this entry isn’t about D/s, Cyberpaths, Narcissistic Personality Disorders, Ropes or anything so damn dark. It’s not about the possible attendant evils that flock around these subjects, either.

This is the blog entry that was to be posted yesterday, but ‘chaos’ ensued into the day, and a major detour was necessary. Or seemed to be at the time. I think not, now. Chaos demands attention, because like a 5 year old with a foul mouth and a tantrum building, it gets your attention.

No, 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 work will.

I have always loved Copeland, but just like the masses of people, with a little bit of musical training, didn’t really know much about him or the genesis of his music. I do now.

It’s a beautiful, rain filled (we need it, drought for years here) Spring, Copeland is perfect background music for your day. Or evening, but there is such a poignancy and tenderness in Copeland, that it sets the heart and humours in the right direction to get on with the day.

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 American poet, Hart Crane. 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 it’s 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 non 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. Jazz,  although quintessentially American, was limited for Copland. He used it in the 20’s and 20’s , but turned to Latin and American folk music in the 40’s.

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.  A hard edged staccato beat in many places.

I hear this last in his “Billy the Kid” based on the American gunfighter. The gunfights, the quick changes and turns 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.  Quite a mishmash of musical/cultural influences for a new developing “American” music, but also, a nation that was a melting pot.  How American, indeed.

There is a powerhouse of American influence in the 20’s-50’s with Copeland, John Steinbeck, Virgil Thomson, so many others,  all composers and writers trying to express the fundamental American sight and sound.  The big, open Western Prairies were fodder for this artistic vision.

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 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.

And that title to the blog entry? It comes from a quote of Copeland’s  I found in my reading.

“Conducting puts me in a very powerful position. Best of all, it is a power for a Good purpose.”

It’s all in there, a powerful landscape made into the intangible except to the heart.

The leitmotiv of a young nation.

Lady Nyo

Copyrighted, 2009

This article is dedicated to my friend, Phil, for all the right reasons.


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