A Copland Celebration
Saturday, October 21, 2000 - 8:00 p.m.
Jim Rouse Theatre
AARON COPLAND (1900-1990)
A LINCOLN PORTRAIT
PREMIERED: Cincinnati, OH, 1942
It is one of the ironies of American music that the composer most associated with patriotic music (after Sousa) was a card-carrying Communist. However, in the highly-charged months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Aaron Copland’s own patriotism was not to be doubted; he leapt at Andre Kostalanetz’s request for a musical portrait of “an eminent American,” and produced one of the truly great works of American nationalism. The words he chose from the writings of Abraham Lincoln have the ineluctable force of scripture; following their first recitation by the now mostly-forgotten actor William Adams, they have been read in performances of this work by orators ranging from Gregory Peck to Margaret Thatcher. Strangely, Vincent Persichetti’s choice of very nearly the same words for a piece to commemorate the inauguration of Richard Nixon was condemned as “too political”. The piece has power beyond the merely musical: a performance in Caracas in 1957 was credited with starting the revolution that ousted dictator Marcos Jimenez. There has been and there is no time in our American lives when Lincoln’s words have not been all too relevant; we cannot, indeed, escape history.
Cast in Copland’s most accessible all-American tonal language, the music enshrines Lincoln’s words in pillars of sound just as often associated with the prairies and Monument Valley, while snatches of familiar melodies such as Camptown Races and On Springfield Mountain act almost literally as landmarks. Copland sets up a steady climb to the pinnacle of “Government of the people, by the people, for the people,” allowing Lincoln to declaim unhindered across the ages. The music, written in the throes of wartime, speaks to all times.
JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833-1897)
SYMPHONY No.2 in D, Op. 73
PREMIERED: Vienna, Austria, 1877
- I Allegro non troppo
- II Adagio non troppo
- III Allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino)
- IV Allegro con spirito
Following the extremely successful premiere of his Second Symphony, Brahms did two things that changed his historical image irrevocably: he finally gave up wanting to be a conductor, and he grew a beard. His running rivalry with Richard Wagner finally hit the buffers of absurdity when Brahms’s new Symphony had to be delayed because the orchestra needed extra time to rehearse Wagner’s Das Rheingold; Brahms was now the unwitting symbol of a conservatism he never actually espoused. Sleek, modern-looking Wagner would forever peer across the ring at Bach-meets-Santa-Claus Brahms for most of the next hundred years, with theorists like Nietzsche and Hanslick wielding the towels (in Nietzsche’s case, for both sides).
This supremely genial symphony is no-one’s idea of an act of war. The first movement is in a clear, calm sonata form with both themes in the “correct” keys after a short but well-intentioned veer into the startling F# major for a few measures before the second theme appears. As if to underscore the music’s good intentions, the famous Wiegenlied (Cradle Song) appears halfway through, and quietly influences the rest of the movement.
The slow movement, in a theoretically-mysterious B major (a genial three dominants away, compared with Beethoven’s heroic four), combines variation technique with sonata form, with both themes elaborating slowly through the movement. Those (there are many) who accuse Brahms of poor orchestration should look closely at the third movement, which achieves most of its (vital) contrast with the rest of the work by thinning out the instrumental texture, not to mention the changes of time signature that point to an entirely different world – the folk music of Eastern Europe, especially Hungary, which held a special (personal?) fascination for Brahms.
After two movements in sonata form, it’s surprising to find that the finale is a third example, but by now we’re starting to get the message. The tranquillo section that leads to the huge Recapitulation is carefully knitted from earlier material, at a place where Beethoven would have simply stomped down a staircase of diminished chords over a growling pedal point. For Beethoven, sonata form was mainly a system of contrasting structural blocks; for Brahms, it was a process, as ideas morphed and twisted into each other – a procedure that led Schoenberg to pronounce Brahms the greatest composer of his century. Ironically, the other composer who maintained that composition was “the art of transition” was … Wagner.
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