About this Recording
8.559359 - COPLAND, A.: Dance Symphony / Symphony No. 1 / Short Symphony (Bournemouth Symphony, Alsop)

Aaron Copland (1900–1990)
Dance Symphony • First Symphony • Short Symphony


The Third Symphony of 1946 [Naxos 8.559106] may be the only such piece by Aaron Copland that conforms to traditional notions of what a ‘symphony’ is, but numerous other of his orchestral works might reasonably be termed ‘symphonic’, not least two groups of compositions that emerged relatively early and late in his career. Three works from that earlier group are included on the present disc.

Although not the first of his orchestral works to be performed, the Dance Symphony was chronologically the earliest to be composed. Copland derived it from his ‘vampire’ ballet Grohg, inspired by the German expressionist film Nosferatu, that he worked on during 1922–25. With little chance of its being staged (the ballet was not seen as such until after Copland’s death), the composer had already adapted its opening section, Cortège macabre, for performance in May 1925 and proceeded to arrange three further sections for the RCA Victor Company Prize in 1929. The Dance Symphony, the title no doubt reflecting its balletic origins, had its première in Philadelphia on 15 April 1931 with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Leopold Stokowski.

The first movement, Dance of the Adolescent, opens with an ominous slow introduction for brass—then woodwind—and strings, punctuated by sardonic gestures on xylophone. Muted trombone intones a motif that is to be of signal importance as the work progresses, and its first appearance sets the main portion of the movement in motion. A perky theme for clarinet and pizzicato strings is followed by a more soulful melody first heard on oboe, variously accompanied by violas, harp and glockenspiel, before reaching a brief climax on strings. Both themes are freely combined on the way to a forceful climax, after which lower strings usher in a varied return of the opening. The second movement, Dance of the Girl Who Moves as if in a Dream, begins with a langorous theme for woodwind and strings, followed by atmospheric music for divided strings and harp that continues on woodwind before expanding into a fervent orchestral climax, brusquely cut off to reveal the solo viola in musing reverie. The finale, Dance of Mockery begins with a jaunty theme for woodwind and percussion, followed by a rhythmically incisive theme for strings and brass. These are alternated with a deftly ironic idea featuring glissando strings, before the trombone motif from near the work’s beginning sets off a vibrant amalgamation of all the material, returning to call time on proceedings with a decisive thud.

The Symphony No. 1 also derives from an earlier work, the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra Copland wrote during 1923. First performed in New York on 11 January 1925, with his teacher Nadia Boulanger as soloist and the New York Symphony Orchestra conducted by Walter Damrosch, it scored a controversial success. Copland, perhaps mindful that the forces required might limit performance, re-orchestrated the work in 1928, reallocating the organ part to woodwind in quieter and more lyrical passages, and to additional brass in those that are more densely scored. In terms of content the piece remained essentially the same. It was given its première by Ernest Ansermet and the Berlin Symphony Orchestra during December 1931 though, ironically, it is the original version with organ that has always enjoyed more frequent hearing.

The Prelude begins a melancholic theme for flute, joined by strings and then responded to by woodwind and harp, before violas and solo woodwind have their own variant. The central section is introduced by sul ponticello violins and features flute along with lower strings in a more animated dialogue, while a motif heard discreetly on trumpet is to play a much more decisive rôle in the later movements. Strings now state the most extended version of the theme, before a return to the flute motif from the beginning quietly rounds off the movement. The Scherzo starts with animated woodwind rhythms over vamping strings, to which the other woodwind respond with a ‘French’ ditty. Gathering energy, the music erupts to uninhibited effect, but fanfaring brass introduce a central section where woodwind methodically pursue a subdued but angular theme. Strings add a cool, Ravelian aura, before woodwind intone the basic rhythm that bursts in on brass and strings. The ‘French’ motif reappears, before the final climax makes ever more inventive use of the main rhythm on the way to a resounding close. The Finale opens with an austere theme for strings that steadily grows in volume and intensity until capped by brass and later the trumpet motif from the first movement (its ejaculatory two-note tail will pervade the movement’s closing stages). Strings and horns now lead off with a determined variant of the main theme, aggressively answered by brass, before continuing on woodwind over pizzicato strings. Brass enter as this again builds to a weighty climax over pounding timpani, and capped by the trumpet motif. Solo violin now initiates a more inward passage in dialogue with the woodwind, which continues until solo woodwind then strings seize on a rhythmically more incisive motif. This takes hold of the orchestra section by section, until excited brass exchanges bring about the main climax which is outwardly similar to the proceeding one but with all of the movement’s various motifs now brought into play. The final pages reiterate the all-pervasive rhythm in powerfully unequivocal terms.

What is designated as Copland’s ‘Second Symphony’ is better known as his Short Symphony. The work was finished in 1933 and first heard in Mexico City on 23 November 1934 with the Mexico Symphony Orchestra and Carlos Chávez. Although scored for smaller forces than either of the previous works, its rhythmic difficulties meant that it remained unheard in the United States until 1944. Copland had made a Sextet transcription in 1937 and this long remained the more familiar version, yet in terms of its motivic and textural ingenuity, the original surely ranks among his most successful works. The three movements, played with minimal pause, outline a Classical fast-slow-fast sequence.

The first movement opens with a lively dialogue between woodwind, piano and upper strings, frequently punctuated by heavier chordal gestures on lower strings and brass. These two ideas are not so much developed as elaborated, underlying momentum being provided by the constant polyrhythmic interplay. A brief culmination on the chordal idea presently makes way for the second movement, in which strings and woodwind unfold a gently elegiac polyphony, though not without a certain harmonic astringency, and which is itself contrasted with a pastoral-like music for solo woodwind and strings. This builds gradually to a finely-wrought yet understated climax, which then subsides with fleeting references to the movement’s beginning. The finale revisits the intricate interplay from the first movement, though now with a demonstrably greater decisiveness and sense of humour. An intensive fugato, which resourcefully migrates from strings to brass, provides contrast before the return of the initial music and, after a pensive allusion to the second movement, a trenchant and no-nonsense coda.

Richard Whitehouse

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