About this Recording
8.559297 - COPLAND: The Tender Land Suite / Piano Concerto / Old American Songs (arr. for chorus)

Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
Piano Concerto • The Tender Land (Suite) • Old American Songs


Neither of Aaron Copland’s little-known operas, The Second Hurricane and The Tender Land, is “operatic”. Both are intimate works of a specialized nature. The Second Hurricane is an opera for children. The Tender Land began as a television opera. When NBC rejected it, Copland recast the work for performance by the New York City Opera, where its 1954 première was not a success. He later wrote: “The Tender Land was not meant to be a big dramatic opera. It was for young people to perform, and for that reason, it is rather simple in musical style and story line… I was trying to give young American singers material that they do not often get in the opera house; that is, material that would be natural for them to sing and perform… The result was closer to musical comedy than grand opera.”

In truth, as Copland himself once confided, “For me, opera was really a very problematic form – la forme fatale – as I called it after my experience with The Tender Land”. Today, The Tender Land maintains a place on the fringes of the American operatic repertoire (itself a fringe phenomenon) as a piece best suited to unpretentious means and small spaces.

One catalyst for The Tender Land was Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee’s famous 1941 portrait of the American South during the Depression, unforgettably illustrated by Walker Evans’s photographs of hard rural lives. The opera, to a muchrevised libretto by Erik Johns, records an episode among such lives. Copland’s own synopsis revealingly articulates the purposes of this slight, elusive stage work:

The opera takes place in the Thirties, spring harvest time. It’s about a farm family – a mother (Ma Moss), a daughter (Laurie) about to graduate from High School, her sister (Beth), and a grandfather (Grandpa Moss). Two drifters (Martin and Top) come along asking for odd jobs. The grandfather is reluctant to give them any, and the mother is alarmed because she’s heard reports of two men molesting young girls of the neighborhood. Nevertheless, they sleep in the shed for the night.

The graduation party begins the second act. The heroine has naturally fallen in love with one of the drifters. And they prove it by singing a twelve-minute love duet. But there is something of a complication. You see, she associates him with freedom, and he associates her with settling down. Martin asks Laurie to run away with him but in the middle of the night he decides that this kind of roving life is not for Laurie, so he silently steals off with Top. When Laurie discovers she’s been jilted, she decides to leave home anyway, and at the conclusion the mother sings a song of acceptance that is the key to the whole opera. In it she looks to her younger daughter as the continuation of the family cycle that is the whole reason for their existence.

But there is a missing ingredient to this synopsis. A fellow traveler on the left during the thirties, Copland was a victim of the Red Scare. His interrogation by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Subcommittee on Special Investigations – a chilling vignette of real-life theater – was a traumatic experience for America’s most famous and prominent classical composer, who found himself dissimulating under oath when asked about past dealings with members of the Communist Party. This trauma is revisited in The Tender Land. Not only is Grandpa Moss oddly paranoid about outsiders (“You can’t trust strangers. Bums! Dogs!”); even after his suspicions that Martin and Top have molested a neighbor prove unfounded, he sings (amazingly): “You’re guilty all the same.” Ma Moss, too, has “a funny feeling” about Martin and Top, but adds; “Have I the right to make an accusation just on feeling? I hope I’m wrong.” (Erik Johns later confirmed that he and Copland “were thinking about all the false McCarthy accusations and the effect they had on innocent people.”)

The suite Copland extracted from The Tender Land is in three movements, with the second and third linked without pause. As it happens, the opera’s three acts are sampled in reverse order. Movement one comprises the Introduction to act three and the music of the love duet for Martin and Laurie. Movement two is taken from the act two party scene – the opera’s one big number. Movement three adapts the quintet, “The Promise of Living”, that ends act one. This hymn-like finale, arguably the opera’s most memorable music, is an elongated moment musically italicized by the composer. The text, in effect, promises a world without McCarthy when Grandpa, Ma, Laurie, Martin, and Top sing:

The promise of ending
In right understanding
Is peace in our own hearts
And peace with our neighbor.

In other words: the suite ends with a ringing moral affirmation – versus the tenuous ending of the opera itself. In fact, for this writer The Tender Land Suite seems a considerably more successful composition than The Tender Land. Even the love duet sings more naturally without tenor and soprano. Shorn of the opera’s dark patches, of its ambivalence of message and means, the suite celebrates throughout the plain and uplifting musical signature Copland indelibly inscribed as “American”.

The Copland Piano Concerto, like The Tender Land, a work not often heard, is “early Copland”: 1926. That is: it comes two years after George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and a year following Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F, works that created a great stir and controversy in the music world. Paul Rosenfeld, who championed Copland in the intellectual press, treated the Piano Concerto as a response to these Gershwin piano-and-orchestra vehicles (which he argued were compositionally inferior to Copland’s “improvement”). Copland himself never confirmed that Gershwin was a catalyst for his one composition for piano and orchestra. In fact, Copland rarely spoke or wrote about Gershwin. An exceptional occasion, when he did, was a questionand- answer at New York’s WPA Theatre of Music in 1937. Copland was asked to compare his music “with Mr. Gershwin’s jazz”. His answer: “Gershwin is serious up to a point. My idea was to intensify it. Not what you get in the dance hall but to use it cubistically – to make it more exciting than ordinary jazz.”

In the Piano Concerto, arguably the “jazziest” piece in Copland’s entire output, the evident jazz voice is wedded to a conscious compositional sophistication that Copland put into words when he commented that his aim was “to explore new avenues in the area of polyrhythms” and “to experiment with shifting beats by introducing a variety of highly unorthodox and frequently changing rhythms that made the music polymetric.”

The Copland Piano Concerto resulted from a commission from Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony. “If you write a piano concerto,” Koussevitzky told him “you can play it yourself”. While we may not today remember Copland as a pianist – in his later performing career, he was a conductor – his recording of the concerto with Leonard Bernstein, and even more his live performances captured on broadcast, reveal a bracing keyboard talent. In a note for the concerto, Copland wrote of the soloist “improvising”. And the concerto’s second movement is headed “molto rubato” (inviting rhythmic license). While there is no actual improvisation in the keyboard part, Copland’s own performances of the concerto bristle with impressions of freedom and spontaneity, even to the point of wildness.

The concerto’s two movements are linked. The first is bluesy. The second, once termed by the composer a “snappy number”, is introduced by a remarkably rambunctious piano solo. Near the close, preceding a wicked coda, there is an expansive reprise of the first movement’s blues-song; here it is difficult not to be reminded of a similar reprise at the close of Gershwin’s concerto. And, like the Gershwin concerto, Copland’s is a 1920s “New York” piece: brassy, exuberant, ever confident in its bluesy swagger.

The Boston reviews were unkind. “No music heard at these concerts in the past fifteen years has created so great a sensation”, reported the Globe. “The audience forgot its manners, exchanging scathing verbal comments, and giggled nervously ... creating so great a bustle that at times it was difficult to hear the music clearly.” Focusing on the opening solo, “struck by fingers apparently directed at random, as a child amuses itself by making noises when it is restless in the room,” Philip Hale — an important Boston voice — amplified in the Herald: “the audience laughed, as if the Concerto were a huge joke played on the hearers, also on Mr. Koussevitzky.” A third critic wrote, “with no effort at all the listener visualizes a jazz dance hall next door to a poultry yard.” Today, we no longer hear a barnyard when we hear the Copland Piano Concerto. But it is worth being reminded how bold this music once sounded.

Copland composed two sets of Old American Songs, ten songs in all (1950, 1952). The original versions were for voice and piano; Copland subsequently transcribed both sets for voice and orchestra. We hear the songs as transcribed for chorus and orchestra by composers other than Copland. Three of the Old American Songs are folk-songs: I Bought Me a Cat, The Little Horses, The Golden Willow Tree. Copland’s settings refashion the tunes and, especially in the case of two minstrel songs Ching-a-ring Chaw and The Boatmen’s Song, the words.

Joseph Horowitz

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