“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
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.
The 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.
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.