About this Recording
9.70145 - COPLAND, A.: 12 Poems of Emily Dickinson / 4 Early Songs / Old American Songs (Easley, Polimanti)

Aaron Copland (1900–1990)
Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson • Songs


Aaron Copland was born in Brooklyn in 1900 to a Lithuanian Jewish family whose name was originally Kaplan. His musical education started very early and at the age of fifteen, apparently after hearing a concert of Ignacy Paderewski, he decided to become a composer. By the end of 1918 Copland had composed Three Songs inspired by the poems of Aaron Schaffer, which are clearly marked by European influences. In the impressionist Night, we hear Debussy with his whole-tone scales; A Summer Vacation, models itself on Duparc and Fauré in depicting memories of a sunny atmosphere which also inspired Benjamin Britten in Holiday Diary; and Richard Strauss seems to be the model for My Heart is in the East.

Copland’s attraction to the contemporary music of Europe drew him to move to Paris, where he became the first American pupil of Nadia Boulanger. To this period belong three songs based on translations of oriental texts. Old Poem (from the Chinese by Arthur Waley, 1920), is heard mainly under the influence of Ravel. The beginning sadness and loneliness of this poem suggests a still atmosphere while the piano introduction gives an oriental connotation to the work. Pastoral (from Kafiristan, E. Powys Mathers, 1921) is doubtless more personal with its sensuality, great vocal extension and bitonality. Once again the piano has the task of creating the bucolic scenary through passages imitating a wind instrument. Alone (E. Powys Mathers, from an Arabic text by J. Duncan, 1922), is a hypnotic nocturnal piece which clearly demonstrates the maturity of this young composer.

In 1925, after this period spent in France, Copland returned to the United States. His music began to incorporate jazz elements then popular, and a feature of music by Stravinsky and Ravel, as is apparent in works like Dance Symphony or Music for the Theater. Also remarkable was Copland’s activity as concert organizer; he played an important rôle in the establishment of the Yaddo Contemporary Music Festival. Yaddo is an artist’s community whose mission is to support talent; it was founded in 1900 by the financier Spencer Trask. Virgil Thomson, Leonard Bernstein, Philip Guston, Truman Capote and Philip Roth are some of the artists who benefited from this opportunity.

Starting in 1930, Copland composed several austere works like Piano Variations and Short Symphony before reverting to a more enjoyable style enriched by folkloric themes which ensured him great popularity (El Salón Mexico, Billy the Kid, Rodeo). After the Second World War he went back to the genre of the art song, with the intense Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson. Composed from 1949 to 1950, this collection constitutes the summit among his works for voice providing compositional maturity and deeply evocative style, and characterized by true, sober and profound emotion. Copland chose texts expressing the main themes of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, Nature, Life, Love, Time and Eternity, showing perfect sensitivity and understanding of the poems. Although the composer “had no intention of composing a song cycle”, only the seventh and twelfth songs have a clear thematic relationship, nevertheless he “prefer[ed] them to be sung as a cycle” as “they seem to have a cumulative effect”. The work is very demanding and a singer with a wide vocal range is required to master the leaps and the sudden changes of register found in these songs. The musical phrases often tend to ascend and then linger on a higher note. The melodies adhere perfectly to the rhythm of the poems and Copland alternates vocal expansiveness with a more recitative-speaking style. Powerful as well as subtle and colourful singing and playing are needed throughout the cycle.

Nature, the gentlest mother starts with bird calls in the piano part which remind one of Ravel’s Oiseaux tristes. Before the central pastoral, crystalline sonorities resound several times, then the song ends in the silence of the falling night, with the last call of a solitary bird. There came a wind like a bugle, is the scene of a windstorm, bright and rich with clangorous effects. From the naive text of Why do they shut me out of Heaven?, Copland draws an expressive arioso supported by sober accompaniment; jazz elements can be heard at the beginning of the second strophe. The world feels dusty, deals with the theme of death and was the first piece of the set to be completed. The warm love song, Heart, we will forget him, is written with a fine counterpoint between voice and piano. Dear March, come in!, is an exuberant welcome to this month and shows Dickinson’s sensibility to the change of seasons. Sleep is supposed to be, is the climactic core of the cycle and is declaimed with true grandeur whose dotted rhythms in the piano will be found again in the last song. When they come back, casts a worried glance back toward Spring which is feared never to return. The calm canon of voice and instrument at the beginning gives leave to an acceleration in the central section. I felt a funeral in my brain, creates a dramatic almost paranoid scene with thudding drums and tolling bells appearing in the percussive piano writing. Surprisingly when, in 1970 Copland orchestrated eight of these works, he left out this piece which could have offered plenty of possibilities for tone colouring. In, I’ve heard an organ talk sometimes, the piano suggests the sonority of a cathedral organ while the voice’s melody paints the poetic picture by combining ascending intervals to reach the higher register while retaining the low. Going to Heaven!, seems similar in style to Old American Songs; it has a gospel feel, interrupted by recitativo sections. The music of the phrase, “Since the mighty autumn afternoon”, foreshadows that of, “Since then ‘tis centuries”, in The Chariot, the final song in the series. In this last piece, the composer sets to music one of the most famous poems of Emily Dickinson: Because I would not stop for Death (Some publications entitle this poem, “Because I could not stop for Death”). Copland decided to omit the fourth strophe of this poem in order to retain the musical form he had in mind. The dotted rhythms and text reveal the nature of a transfigured funeral march, the melody always calm and dignified.

During the composition of Twelve Poems, Copland felt the need to work on something more light-hearted and started to arrange five traditional American melodies for voice and piano. These pieces form the first volume of Old American Songs. Benjamin Britten, who had composed similar works based on British folk-songs, and the tenor Peter Pears became acquainted with these pieces during a concert tour in the United States. They decided to present them at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1952. In the same year a second set of five pieces was written which, with the first, soon became very popular. This cd includes six songs which are suitable for a female singer: Long time ago, an evocative ballad of 1837; Simple Gifts, a well-known tune of the Shakers which the composer had already used in the ballet Appalachian Spring. I bought me a cat, a children’s song from Oklahoma, is a cumulative memory song with animal sounds and a final last laugh. Opening the second volume, The Little Horses, a children’s lullaby from the southern United States, is characterized by almost constant syncopation in the piano part. At the River, is an arrangement of the famous hymn tune by Reverend Lowry (1865); it was also set by Charles Ives. Ching-a-ring Chaw is based on an amusing minstrel song published in 1833. Written in the call-and-response form typical of many Negro Spirituals, the bouncing rhythm and a banjo-style piano accompaniment provide the base for the dazzling onomatopoeias of the vocal line. Dirge in woods, was written for the fiftieth year of teaching of Nadia Boulanger (1954). It is a tender and a nostalgic homage, a setting of a poem by George Meredith.

Copland songs are relatively few in number but most certainly of a noticeable quality, and they testify how successfully he “gave a great deal of thought as to how [his] essentially instrumental style could be adapted for the voice”.

Enrico Maria Polimanti

Close the window