Magazine article The Spectator

Copland Celebration

Magazine article The Spectator

Copland Celebration

Article excerpt

The Aaron Copland Centenary (he was born on 14 November 1900) seems a contradiction in all but bookkeeping terms that music of such permanently effervescent euphoria, ever fresh, tingling, lifeenhancing should be encased in a monumental tombstone, taking its due place in the pantheon of high culture. Because, in such evergreen scores as the Wild West ballets Billy the Kid and Rodeo, the joyful calm of Appalachian Spring, the inner-urban loneliness of Quiet City, the aspiring demotic rhetoric, so remarkably without banality or bombast, of the Fanfare for the Common Man, he virtually invented an American vernacular - high but not remote - his achievement has become normative and in danger of being taken for granted.

It can still even amidst the current celebrations be underrated (if only by cultural heavyweights); for almost uniquely in the troubled waters of last century's music its mood is consistently optimistic and uplifting. Think of the angst and turmoil of the great expressionists, the tormented excruciation of the most characteristic Bartok: and, more recently, the compulsive tensions and grimaces of the increasingly death-propelled Shostakovich, the alwaysdarkening stain, in the end completely victorious, that overtakes the wonderful gaiety of the earlier Britten; even the religious ecstasies of Messiaen are hardly fun for the people, however elevating. Apart from such isolated exceptions as the sparkle of Poulenc and the procreative affirmation of the best of Tippett, only Stravinsky has produced a consistent course of divertimento, and grounded the 'serious' side of his oeuvre - its rituals of purification and renewal from Oedipus Rex, via Persephone. to The Rake's Progress - in the same appealing idiom.

Yet it might well have been the same as the great majority with Copland. After his early splashes - the over-the-top Organ Symphony (cheerfully sending churchy associations to hell) and Piano Concerto (outrageous flamboyant jazzmatazz) he was all set on a path of knotty, difficult modernism. Even the work on the turn, the magnificent Symphonic Ode completed in 1929, which to listeners now proclaims the note of communal exaltation loud and clear, seemed then so rebarbative and actually was so difficult to play that it lay unperformed for over a decade after its premiere. Thereafter Copland entered the ivory tower from which emerged such uncompromising statements as the Piano Variations, the Short Symphony, and Statements itself, the mot juste for all these hard, fierce pieces whose conspicuous physical energy and burning cerebral construction fuse into unforgettable sonorous images of tense, tonic exhilaration. All are classics of the century's music: some remain unaccountably neglected. Pianists have long since mastered the clangorous yet radiant resonances of the Variations, but conductors have still to assimilate to the manner born the vaunting rhetoric of the Ode and the lithe cross-rhythms of the Symphony. (Most conductors anyway: though any listener who caught either at this summer's Proms, under Michael Tilson Thomas and Oliver Knussen respectively, will have heard just how they should go.)

Far more problematic, however, is the return in the last portion of his composing life to a renewed grappling with modernism. …

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