It was one of the most moving musical experiences I’ve had in years, entirely unexpected and entirely at odds with expectations. When, after night after night of watching The War, among the disturbed surprise at the stunningly abbreviated short changing of the two atomic bombings*, Ken Burns used Aaron Copland’s Concerto for Clarinet Strings Harp and Piano behind the reflections of veterans and their families. I have to admit the tears were streaming even before the first modulation and the concomitant soaring of the clarinet line.
There, in one short vignette from a longer work, was everything that was wrong but also that was so right about how Aaron Copland’s music is used and abused. I don’t blame Burns for his use of it in that context at all, it was appropriate and I can’t imagine Copland, who was famously accommodating, would have been offended. Generally I’m passionately against the use of pre-existing music in movies and the excerpting of them in any case, without the direct permission OF THE COMPOSER. What can I say, here, after the long and honest look at The War, it worked.
Copland’s “easy style” pieces have certainly been some of the most abused music still under copyright. Appalachian Spring and the other ballets are the most abused, the other orchestral music and the chamber and piano works, thankfully, not so much. They have certainly been copied too. The frequent stealing of magnificent sonorities invented by Copland by much lesser composers for Hollywood and beyond have rendered them cliches. That a skinny, homely, bookish, gay, Jewish, socialist from New York invented the “American sound” heard in a thousand cowboy and “heartland” movies has to rank as one of the greatest ironies of our cultural history. The temptation is to leave behind the great virtues of his music in the rush to avoid the tacked on associations of the copy cats. But Copland’s music has real worth even within its limitations**.
The Violin Sonata is a piece that is entirely rewarding both in the listening and the playing - though not as much in the clarinet transcription in which the piano is pitched too low. The second movement is one of the most fitting elegies for a dead WWII soldier ever written. The Four Piano Blues, The Piano Sonata and even the over exposed Our Town score all have real meaning. The early Variations and the late 12-tone works are great pieces too, particularly the somber and unappreciated Nonet for strings, but those are in little danger of over exposure.
It’s hard to categorize how I feel about Aaron Copland. Sometimes I think that Michael Tippett was a better Aaron Copland than Aaron Copland was. Sometimes I can’t imagine not agreeing for once with Leonard Bernstein that Copland was the best we had. I’m not interested in the petty and insignificant war between the American tonalists and the “authentic modernists”, never having seen any reason you can’t like it all, accepting the value that it really contains. As was proved the other night, sometimes no one said it better than the "easy" Aaron Copland.
* Thinking about it later, it’s possible that Burns knew he wouldn’t be able to do the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki justice in the time available. In that case there should have been a bit of mitigation to the entirely understandable pro-bombing sentiments voiced. That is certainly a viewpoint that is there and has to be taken into account. It is completely understandable in those who expected worse in the planned invasion of Japan. But it is certainly not universally shared and it is a viewpoint that carries some of the largest load of moral ambiguity of any position ever held. If Ken Burns is paying any attention, he really needs to do a very serious piece about the bombing of the two cities including an extensive examination of the motives and results.
** The great composer, Milton Babbitt, pointed out several years back the obsession that Copland, and some other of Nadia Boulanger’s students, had with chords. That is certainly a key into understanding the technical structure and motivation of his music, as it is with Rameau’s. It can’t account for all of the effect though. Copland went considerably beyond “the chords”.
Concerto for Clarinet CBS Masterworks Catalog #: 42227. I’m not certain that the recording here is the one that Copland said was the best recorded example of his conducting. One of the two he made with Goodman was.
Violin Sonata Naxos Catalog #: 8559102. Peter Zazofsky’s perfomance is the best I’ve heard.