Fête de la Musique: Aaron Copland's Symphony No. 3

Fête de la Musique (World Music Day) is celebrated globally on 21st June. We hear from Christopher Stark, conductor of the Ernest Read Symphony Orchestra about an American Symphony which embodies 'Transforming Communities'.

Christopher Stark rehearsing the Ernest Read Symphony Orchestra (ERSO) at St John's Waterloo, ahead of a concert at Waterloo Festival 2019


We’re so disappointed at ERSO not to be coming to the Waterloo Festival this weekend, so thought we’d write something about the special piece that we’d hoped to play. Ironically it is a work that has, at its core, a message of compassion that is exactly what we all need in these unstable times. We hope you’ll get the chance to explore the piece anyway - there are some fantastic recordings available on Spotify and YouTube. I’d start with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony.

Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3 came to life over probably the most unstable and transitional period in the last century, over the final years of the Second World War. Declaring that his piece should reflect the ‘euphoric spirit of the America’ at the start of this journey into a new world, Copland’s musical language is embedded in a spirit of optimism and brotherhood. In 2003 it was revealed that the FBI, suspicious of his left-leaning political ideals and activities, had watched him for years. As he said confidently to Senate inquisitors in 1953, "Musicians make music out of feelings aroused out of public events”. This is a sentiment that seems to be backed up in this piece; a message of compassion for fellow humans runs deep, with its construction around one of his most celebrated works, his 1942 Fanfare for the Common Man.

So much of Copland’s music sits on this wonderful cusp between two styles; one, deeply routed in the sound of America. There is music from the barn dances, with hoe-downs and rodeos, and depictions of vast American landscapes such as those heard in his ballet Appalachian Spring. But alongside this ‘Americana’, his language is always informed by his many European influences, and from the more traditional canon of western music. Copland studied for three years in France with the esteemed composer, conductor and teacher Nadia Boulanger (the elder sister of the Lili, the composer of our first ERSO lockdown project that we are currently working towards), and in his Symphony No. 3, (his last and largest offering in a form that sits as a sort of king of the Western classical canon) we see Copland engaging most overtly with the European tradition.


The Symphony’s 45 minutes or so are in four movements, with two large outer movements that surround a dance-like movement and a slow movement, and the whole piece has a trajectory and a cohesion that sit it firmly in the camp of a Symphony. The first movement forms an arch from open, generous music that we might expect to hear in his ballets, to pain and confusion, before returning. At the crest of this pain, the music almost contains the painful irony of a Shostakovich Symphony. In the second movement, we are in the world of a traditional scherzo, with playful jaunty rhythms of Bartók. And a slow movement that has the burning intensity in its pianissimo writing of a Mahler slow movement.


But within all of the music, Copland always welcomes us into his music. He may have thought that he was being disparaging about himself when he said that people ‘always think of me as a jazz composer’. But his genius is to make such profound large-scale statements in a musical language that has such open arms. The conductor Koussevitzy, who commissioned this piece, said of it:

"there is no doubt about it - this is the greatest American Symphony. It goes goes from the heart to the heart"

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