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On his 121st birthday, four reasons to love Aaron Copland

On Aaron Copland’s birthday, I find myself wanting to listen to the opening minute of the composer’s sonata for violin and piano on a loop. Not that I don’t love the rest of the work, but the opening encapsulates just what I love about the best of his music: a simplicity and sincerity that carries a noble message, but doesn’t take itself too seriously. There’s something refreshing about this music, blissfully free of the sanctimonious preaching that defines so much of today’s music. With Copland, the message is the music itself, and so on his birthday, I’d like to highlight a few of his works and pay homage to one of the creators of our American sound.

Throughout my musical education, I loved being around student conductors, conducting seminars and what are called “lab orchestras,” where a student gets to practice conducting on a real live orchestra, while the teacher critiques and gives a masterclass on the various repertoire that is difficult for a conductor. A piece that regularly comes up for study is Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” which abounds with challenges for the conductor: shifts in tempo, meter changes, and a wide variety of characters that need to be brought out so the music really shines.

Copland said this: “There is a French-sounding music, a German sound, why not American? We had done it in ragtime and jazz, but not in the kind of concert music I was interested in.”

Well, with “Appalachian Spring,” he found his American sound. The great dancer and choreographer Martha Graham commissioned this one-act ballet about a celebration of an American pioneer family upon completing the building of a farmhouse in Pennsylvania. The music has all the hallmarks of Copland’s style, including a wonderful treatment of the classic old Shaker song “Simple Gifts.”

I love all the different small sections that make up the piece, little musical miniature short stories. I think a reason it has been successful as a concert work sans dancers is that the music is so simple, original, and direct that the story lies embedded in the music — when I hear it or play it (it is very fun to play by the way!) I hear the story through the music, everything from the ambivalence of the challenges of moving into an unknown land to the celebratory mood and young optimism of spring.

Copland finished his Violin Sonata in 1943. I often wonder how certain works make it to the regular concert circuit and others come up rarely. For all the times I have performed or seen programmed “Appalachian Spring,” I don’t think I have ever come across the great violin sonata at a live concert. Our loss, as the work is one of the most satisfying Copland pieces there is.

The dedication of this piece is worth noting — In 1931, Copland had met a young Princeton graduate named Harry Dunham. He and Copland became good friends, and Dunham got to know and admire the musical and artistic circles Copland inhabited. In 1943, while Copland was finishing the violin sonata, he learned of Dunham’s death in the war, and deeply affected, wrote this: “To Lt. Harry Dunham (1910–1943), a friend of mine who lost his life while on duty in the South Pacific.”

This recording, with a young, white-hot Isaac Stern on violin and the composer on piano is one to cherish.

When Copland was commissioned to write a musical portrait of an eminent American, he chose President Abraham Lincoln, and in the creation of “Lincoln Portrait,” he gave us a piece that embodies the best of the American spirit. The work features a full orchestra joined by a narrator, who reads excerpts of various Lincoln speeches, including the Gettysburg Address, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and the State of the Union in 1862. A few years back, I had the pleasure of performing this with John Goodman as the narrator. Over the years, many figures — including Adlai Stevenson, Barack Obama, Henry Fonda and Samuel L. Jackson ‘ have performed the piece.

I find the juxtaposition of Lincoln’s own words with the simple Americana sound of Copland’s music moving and powerful, perhaps today in our times, when it seems we need a Lincoln of our own more and more.

I have never loved Copland in the intense way I do some of the other great American composers — of course Gershwin and Bernstein come immediately to mind — but I think there’s a certain poise and grace that makes Copland worth hearing and appreciating. He doesn’t have the style or charm of Bernstein, or the sparkling melodic genius of Gershwin, but Copland remains an American original, personifying that old Shaker tune he used in “Appalachian Spring”: ‘tis a gift to be simple.’

Daniel Lelchuk is the assistant principal cellist of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and the host of the Talking Beats podcast. Twitter: @talkingbeatspod

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