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Vinyl find: Aaron Copland, Sextet / Piano Variations / Piano Quartet

[Aaron Copland - Sextet / Piano Variations/ Piano Quartet]

Back in the ’90s, an advocacy group ran a series of TV ads promoting the consumption of beef. Aaron Copland’s “Hoedown” from the Rodeo ballet suite served as the soundtrack for these commercials.

College music appreciation classes include Copland in a chapter about early American orchestral music. Copland’s use of folk idioms paralleled what composers were doing in other countries — finding a sense of national identity through music.

Copland’s ballet suites in this style pretty much overshadow everything else he’s done. I owned only one album of Copland’s work with the most predictable track listing: Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, Billy the Kid and Fanfare for the Common Man.

[Leonard Bernstein conducts Aaron Copland]

In this sense, Copland is not a one-hit wonder. He’s a one-hit style wonder.

So in my pursuit of Nonesuch albums from the late 1980s, I came across an album of Copland’s chamber works performed by members of the Boston Symphony with Gilbert Kalish on piano.

The difference was stark.

On this album, Copland threw out his elbows, banging out chords that could tell Charles Ives to shut the fuck up. (They didn’t really like each other.) It was actually pretty refreshing to hear not a single bit of the prairie in any of these works.

If he’s not using 12-tone techniques in these works, he’s pretty damn close. The slow second movement of the Sextet is lyrical without being comforting. The finale comes close to being melodic if it weren’t for the Stravinsky-style switches in meter.

The towering influence of Copland’s ballets — and their easy appropriation in anything smacking of Americana — do a disservice to these works. In short, I had written Copland off as an unabashed melodicist, good for some comfort listening but little beyond that.

This album, however, shows a side of Copland that balances out the popular perception. Now if only more of these works could be programmed in live performances …

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