The Promise of Living

“You compose because you want to somehow summarize in some permanent form your most basic feelings about being alive, to set down… some sort of permanent statement about the way it feels to live now, today.”   –A. Copland

Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
Aaron Copland (1900-1990)

It seems appropriate that the life of one of America’s greatest composers–many would say the greatest–Aaron Copland, spanned almost the entire 20th century, the so-called ‘American Century’.  Some of Copland’s best-known compositions, among them the ballets Billy the Kid and Appalachian Spring–the former evoking the Wild West and the latter Shaker country in the farmlands of Appalachia–and the orchestral work, Fanfare for the Common Man, have a distinctive American sound: harmonically and melodically simple and beautifully wide open.

One of Copland’s lesser known works is his opera, The Tender Land, which premiered at the New York City Opera in April of 1954 (the director was Jerome Robbins).  One of the influences for Copland and his librettist, Erik Johns, is said to have been Walker Evans’ iconic photographs of Depression-era farmers that appeared in James Agee’s book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Let Us Now Praise Famous MenThe opera is set on a farm in the 1930’s Midwest, and is the coming-of-age story of a girl named Laurie.  Conductor Stewart Robertson has noted, “What makes a Jewish boy from Brooklyn write a work like this, about a girl who grows up on a farm and realizes that she must leave?…..I think it’s the universality of the story — the need to find your place in the world….[It’s] about the cycle of life; we grow up inheriting our parents’ world but realize we have to step out beyond that world. It’s about the idealism of youth.”

The opera wasn’t well-received when it debuted and it’s not widely performed these days, although Glimmerglass Opera did stage it during their 2010 Festival.  In 1958, Copland arranged a suite for orchestra based on the opera, and it was this work–not the actual opera, which I confess I’ve still yet never seen–that I encountered sometime in the late 80’s, during my medical training.

Cradling Wheat (1938), by Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975) Tempera and oil on board.  The painting is in the St. Louis Art Museum.
Cradling Wheat (1938), by Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975).
Tempera and oil on board.
The painting is in the St. Louis Art Museum.

The finale of the suite, “The Promise of Living”, is drawn from the quintet at the end of the opera’s first act and incorporates the melody from the folk hymn, “Zion’s Walls.”  The movement begins with a quiet, lyrical–rising and falling–passage in the strings.   At 0:50, the English horn assumes the melody and commences a dialogue with the other woodwinds.  At 1:26, the strings begin generating a fuller sound that continues to build, the call and response passages creating an inexorable sense of forward motion and, together with the open harmonies, a feeling of tremendous optimism.  At 3:48, without fail, with the entrance of the French horns and the soaring of the strings, I’m overcome.  This is vintage Copland, and it’s downright glorious.

In this recording, Copland himself conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra:


Flashback to 1976:  My mother and I (adolescence can be so unkind) with Mr. Copland.

Jeanne, Mom and Mr. C

10 comments

  • Ahhh, JDB. What a wonderful post. I revere Copland, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard “The Tender Land”, either the opera or the suite derived from it. Glorious stuff. By the way, when you insert those audio tracks into your posts they don’t seem to give an indication of the time elapsing. It doesn’t matter too much in this case since it is clear from your description which moments in the music you’re referring to without the need to refer to the exact timings.

    I love the photograph. You, your mother and Aaron Copland! Wow. I love the way that you and Mr C are intent upon the music while your mother – with an enigmatic smile – has caught the eye of the viewer.

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    • Thanks, GHB. This one was especially rewarding to create. It’s a piece of music I want played at whatever memorial service takes place once I’ve shuffled off this mortal coil. And thank you for pointing out the lack of a time counter in the embedded audio files…I need to figure out how to fix that. I love the picture…a time capsule of sorts. I have it, framed, on my piano (when the lid is down).

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  • Too hard on yourself! I think you look lovely. As the parent of French Horn, violin and viola players, I am of course a big fan of Copland. I wonder how many people know that his Rodeo piece was used in the “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner” ad campaign.

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    • That’s one of my favorite Copland factoids! Almost mentioned it in the post myself, as I think I did at my recital. For comment readers who are interested, you can see the aforementioned beef ad here. The music is “Hoedown”, from Copland’s ballet, Rodeo.

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      • Talking of factoids, many people would know Emerson Lake and Palmer’s popular interpretation of ‘Fanfare For The Common Man’, but the band had previously tackled Copeland via the self-same ‘Hoedown’ on 1972’s Trilogy album.

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        • Wow!, flashback! I owned that LP and had completely forgotten that “Hoedown” was one of the tracks. I loved “In The Beginning”….if memory serves (which it may well not: see previous sentence), I bought the LP specifically for that track.

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    • I met AC at a Contemporary American Composer’s Festival in Bridgeport, CT in December of 1976. I played his composition for piano, “The Cat and the Mouse”, in a recital comprised entirely of his work. All of the performers were teenagers; he was in the audience. Gulp.

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  • This was amazing and brought back memories of when I first heard Copland. What a beautiful composition of your own. So Well Done! Thank you.

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