Happy 4th of July! Well, really, it’s the 5th now but still counts! In that vein, today I want to talk to you about Americana music, specifically the music of Aaron Copland. For those who think you do not know Copland, you definitely know his music!
Proudly born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Aaron Copland was a composer, teacher, writer, and conductor, and was widely referred by his colleagues and critics alike as the “Dean of American Composers.” After his studies took him abroad, studying primarily in Paris under famed composer Nadia Boulanger, Copland was determined to return to the U.S. and make it full-time as a composer. Through his early development, Copland developed a broad taste in music, and eventually decided that composing in the more modernist style he acquired while abroad was not financially stable while trying to live during the Great Depression. Instead, he moved towards the German idea of Gebrauchsmusik, or “music for use,” and began composing music that was more accessible to a wider audience and could have potential uses beyond the artistic realm. Copland also traveled extensively to Europe, Mexico, and even Africa during the depression, which undoubtedly strengthened his resolve to create a new, uniquely American sound.
Prior to Copland, most art music in the U.S. was by composers that were heavily influenced by Western European tradition. In contrast, Copland’s works often center around American themes, like old westerns, nature, and the great outdoors. He developed a new style of harmony that he wanted to represent the vast landscape and pioneer spirit of America, which involved more “open” sonorities, like perfect 4ths and 5ths, as well as simpler, slowly changing harmonic progressions. Copland’s most popular music came from this stylistic period in the 1930’s and ’40’s, such as Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, Rodeo, and the ever-popular Fanfare for the Common Man. He also composed many chamber pieces, vocal works, and opera, and was a prolific film score composer as well.
The piece I want to share with you today is taken from Copland’s second set of “Old American Songs” called “Simple Gifts.” Both sets of songs were composed in the 1950’s and are comprised of 10 songs (5 songs per set) of classic tunes taken from American life in those days. “Simple Gifts,” you may recognize from a number of settings, such as Copland’s own Appalachian Spring or as the “Lord of the Dance” hymn found in most hymnals, but it is originally a Shaker song written in 1848.
This setting is brilliant by Copland, in that the chords as very simple, but the accompaniment often feels like it is out of sync with the melody. As with any great song, the lyrics are enhanced by the music… notice how the piano and melody do not arrive together until the line “when we find ourselves in the place just right” is completed and the word “right” is held, as if you have arrived briefly at that “right” place. The lack of a clear downbeat also creates a freer atmosphere to the setting and makes the moments where the melody and piano come together all the more satisfying to the listener. If you watched or attended church this week, you saw Nicholas Pappas do an outstanding job with this song!
On a personal note:
Music in America has had a fluid history that is difficult to define with one genre, composer, or time period. What someone says is “American music” often greatly depends on a number of factors, like economic class, race, region, heritage, etc. Similar to the history of immigration that has been with us since before the founding of the United States, over the years, different styles of music have been adapted or assimilated into another where the range of musical styles that we enjoy today covers virtually every cultural experience that you can imagine. Whether it is music of indigenous people, art music brought by immigrants of Europe and Asia, or spirituals passed down through slavery, the music heard today represents the full spectrum of our history and I believe creates an incredibly unique depth in what “American music” truly means, not just in art music, but in all layers of society. I feel fortunate to live in a country with such diversity where we all are able to appreciate and be enhanced by the cultures of each other.
Happy (late) 4th!