Copland: Early Music From America's Composer Conductor Marin Alsop examines the rarely heard music from early in Aaron Copland's career. With an ear toward Copland's bold and sometimes jazzy rhythms, Alsop says that listeners can hear hints of the wide expanses that would later open up in music such as Appalachian Spring.
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Copland: Early Music From America's Composer

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Copland: Early Music From America's Composer

Copland: Early Music From America's Composer

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There can't be a composer whose name has been more often characterized as quintessentially American than Aaron Copland.

(Soundbite of song "Ballet Rodeo")

SIMON: That's from Copland's "Ballet Rodeo," but the list goes on, "Fan Fair For The Common Man," "Appalachian Spring," Billy The Kid." Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, has just released a CD of Aaron Copland's music on Naxos, and in April, she will conduct's Copland's "Symphony No. 3" with the BSO. Marin Alsop is back with us in our studios. Thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. MARIN ALSOP (Music Director, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra): Great to be here Scott. Thanks.

SIMON: So, how does a kid from Brooklyn, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants become considered - I'll use the phrase again, you can't avoid it - the quintessentially American composer?

Ms. ALSOP: Yeah, isn't that amazing? I just - I picture, you know, this kid in the apartment in Brooklyn thinking, I wonder what America is really like? And you know, somehow he is able to conjure up this image of big sky, openness, you know, the majesty of landscape, and he does it through very defined compositional techniques. I am thinking "Fanfare for the Common Man." He uses big open intervals, and they're called actually perfect intervals, perfect fourths, perfect fifths, and they're intervals that are quite empty, and I don't mean that in an emotional sense, but they just, they have a lot of space.

(Soundbite of song "Fanfare for the Common Man")

SIMON: Where does Copland fit into the great music figures of the 20th century or perhaps of all time?

Ms. ALSOP: I think he is right up there. The thing that I really want to point out for people, though, is that the Copland we're talking about, you know, the sort of quintessential American sound, is not the full Copland. You know, Copland was an incredibly diverse composer. He wrote serial music, twelve-tone, atonal music which is also spectacular. He wrote music that was very angular and dissonant. He wrote songs. He wrote music for film. He wrote music for all kinds of occasion. You know, he wrote the first opera conceived for television. So, this was a guy who was extraordinarily versatile, and I think we think of him, even though it is a wonderful view of him, I think it is somewhat one-dimensional.

SIMON: You're conducting the "Third Symphony" in the spring.

Ms. ALSOP: Yeah, this is one of my favorite pieces of all time, and you know, it's one of my party pieces. It's so American, you know, as Copland is, but at the same time, it's an extremely sophisticated piece. And what happened was, when he got the commission to write this "Third Symphony," he went back a couple of years to his "Fanfare for the Common Man," which he had written for Cincinnati Symphony, and he takes this three-minute Fanfare, and he manages to dissect it and turn it upside down and inside out and by really sort of looking at it under a microscope and taking it apart, he is able to use that small amount of material to create a 40-minute symphony, which is spectacular, and the Fanfare finally comes in, sort of the payoff the whole piece, at the last movement.

(Soundbite of song "Fanfare for the Common Man")

Ms. ALSOP: I'm not sure everyone could accurately say that's the "Fanfare for the Common Man," but you know, people respond to it, oh, it's from the Olympics or you know, they have this sort of visceral response.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: They play it before the luge championships or something.

Ms. ALSOP: No, no.

SIMON: Well, but I wonder if because we hear it so much, do we sometimes miss appreciating how remarkable his music is?

Ms. ALSOP: Well, you know, I think you're right in that way. And that's what so incredible about this "Third Symphony." It's the unexpected appearance of the "Fanfare," and yet, the whole first three movements have been preparing us for it. You know, that's another important aspect of Copland. His simplicity, his devotion to simplicity, but not simple-minded, you know, it's very sophisticated simplicity.

At the beginning of this symphony, he takes that opening interval of the "Fanfare," and he turns it upside down and gives it to the violins quietly so it's virtually unrecognizable. But this starts setting the stage so that even if you're not a trained musician, there's sort of this organic acceptance of all the material during the first 30 minutes of the piece.

(Soundbite of "Symphony No. 3")

SIMON: Please give out these other symphonies because I gather you've recorded these with the Bournemouth Symphony, your other job.

Ms. ALSOP: Yes.

SIMON: On Naxos. And why are they not nearly as well known as the third?

Ms. ALSOP: Well, I think the element of having the "Fanfare for the Common Man" is very, very appealing about the "Third Symphony." Also, the "Third Symphony" is a major full scale work, you know, it was compared at the time to the works of Mahler, even. The other three symphonies that I recently recorded are symphonies that didn't necessarily start as symphonies. One of them, which is called the "Short Symphony," started as a ballet score to a vampire story. One of the symphonies is called the "Dance Symphony." So, that doesn't really lend itself to the same kind of gravitas, and his first symphony was originally written for an organ soloist with symphony orchestra and then he re-orchestrated it. So, they all have sort of these hybrid histories. And I think that doesn't help with their popularity. Do you know what I mean? People are confused about what they are.

SIMON: But to hear them now, can you hear him experimenting?

Ms. ALSOP: Oh, absolutely. That's the most fantastic thing. It's almost like reading a biography in a way. Just listening to these early symphonies, you hear - there's also another element about Copland. It's this very playful quality, you know, it's kind of a gleam in his eye and just a little wink and a nod. You hear him combining instruments like the bassoon and the wood block and (unintelligible) in the strings, meaning you play with the wood. So, there's a playful quality about it.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ALSOP: And also, in this slow music, there's a yearning that, I think, later becomes part of the American sound and the American spirit that he conveys. You know, this pioneer - you just can see someone out on the plains after a long journey, you know, yearning for home. There's something about it that feels, as an American, feels American to me.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: I'm curious. When you performed Copland, let's say in Bournemouth, does the audience there walkout saying, he's so quintessentially American? Or is that something we've fallen into?

Ms. ALSOP: You know, it's interesting because I've found that in Europe, and especially in the UK, people really - they relate to, I think, the music, particularly as a representation of the ideal of what America is about. It is not just about the landscape. There's another kind of quality to the music. There's a quality of possibility and immediacy, sort of what you see is what you get. And I think this idea of possibility is perhaps even more quintessentially American than the idea of the big sky landscape.

SIMON: Maestro, thank you so much.

Ms. ALSOP: My pleasure. Great to be here.

SIMON: Marin Alsop, musical director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. And to hear more Aaron Copland - for that matter, to hear more of Marin Alsop, go to our Web site,

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: This is Weekend Edition. Hope you're having holidays. I'm Scott Simon.

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