Aaron Copland, Vitebsk, with works by Schoenfeld and Shostakovich
Almeda Trio, Sunday October 17, (Le) Poisson Rouge, NYC
Aaron Copland, Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson
Sarah Wolfson, soprano, and David Shimoni, piano
Monday October 18, Philosophy Hall, Columbia University
I think Copland is a misunderstood composer. Most people, when they think of him, think of this:
Brass, fourths, epic helicopter fly overs of mountain streams and snow-capped peaks. Maybe a team winning the world series. Jesus Shuttlesworth. Or this:
Winds, fourths, folk-like melodies, and epic helicopter fly overs of autumnal foliage on mountainsides.
There’s a Copland that most people have never heard before. A Copland who is a modernist composer, writing in an idiom that was popular in the 1920s when dissonance was seen a potential route towards establishing an authentic American voice, or in an idiom popular in the 1950s, when serialism was the post-war future. This is the Copland that I fell in love with, and who wrote some of the most powerful and expressive works of his career.
It was upon first hearing Copland’s Piano Variations that I realized there is an aspect to this composer that most people had never encountered. Like finding out that Britney Spears had written an avant-garde ten minute noise rock song. His command of a simple, dissonant theme, and the masterful variations that follow, are evidence of Copland’s compositional genius. If you haven’t heard this piece before, you would be hard-pressed to guess that it was composed by Copland. Leonard Bernstein used to joke that he could clear a party in 2 minutes by sitting down at the piano and playing Copland’s Variations. Here they are, expertly interpreted by Gilbert Kalish.
This sound world is what led me to find Vitebsk, Copland’s only piano trio, written in 1929 and the only piece he ever wrote that specifically referenced Judaism. It featured a Yiddish folk melody, called “Mipney Mah,” introduced amongst extreme dissonance of quarter tones, dissonant polyphonic lines, with minor seconds and tritones galore. It’s an amazing work, and for a variety of reasons, I decided to write my master’s thesis on this piece.
I think that when a musicologist writes a substantial piece of writing about a piece of music, they wonder a bit about what purpose their writing has. Naturally, we are all participating in a scholarly discourse about art, music, society, history, etc. But that’s somewhat self-serving and hermetic; outside of our tiny discipline, no one really cares about the question of modal vs. free rhythm in troubadour song, do they?
One thing we hope is that a performer will read our work, and it will affect the way they think about the piece enough so that your thoughts on paper translate to their performance of the work. Which is why I was giddy – after contacting the Almeda Trio before the concert to thank them for performing this rarely heard piece and having them request that I sent them my thesis – that maybe my thesis would help the Trio perform the piece in the way that I thought it should be performed.
To be able to hear a piece live that you have spent so much time invested in is truly a peak experience. And it’s one that I thought I would never have. Because it’s not well known, and because it’s dissonant and very unexpected for Copland, most groups don’t perform it. Most people, outside of Copland scholars, haven’t ever heard of it. Naturally, I was beside myself that I was going to hear this live. No matter how they played it, I would be elated. Here you go – careful of those major/minor chords that open the piece.
In the end, the Almeda Trio played the work with tremendous care, talent, and vigor. It took them a few measure to get into the piece, and so the opening lacked the power it needs. The fast section was especially inspired, with all the parts fitting together perfectly, and the seemingly independent rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic lines sounding as though they were both unified and stratified. Their slow sections, however, were a little too passionate, brimming with the Weltschmerz often associated with Jewish folk themes. Copland once warned Bernstein about using a Jewish melody because it would lend itself too easily to oversentimentality, it would deliver too strong a melodramatic pathos. To counter this in Vitebsk, Copland wrote “senza expresione” next to his borrowed Jewish melody, a gesture that confirmed both his desire to stray away from the Jewish-as-sentimental type and his aligning with the “New Objectivity” movement of the late 1920s. Still, one can forgive them when most of this piece was so beautifully played.
Their reading of the jazzy Cafe Music by Paul Schoenfeld was fun, and Copland’s jumpy, “jazzy” rhythms of Vitebsk (which don’t really sound all that jazzy) contrasted nicely with this light work. The Shostakovich E minor Trio, by comparison a workhorse of the trio repertoire, brimmed with melancholy and despair, like any good work by the great Soviet master. The cello harmonics that begin the first movement were hauntingly spine-tingling:
For me, one of the best parts was after the concert, chatting with the cellist, while patron after patron came up to her to congratulate and thank her, saying how surprised and happy they were with the Copland. “Oh my god,” I heard one woman say, “that Copland piece! I would never have guessed!! But, what a wonderful piece!” Hopefully, with the increased awareness of this piece that the Almeda Trio is spreading, this won’t be the last time in my life that I hear this work.
The rest of the week saw two free performances of chamber works by Copland on Monday and Tuesday, as part of Miller Theatre’s Lunchtime Concert series. This free concert series is fabulous, especially because this year they’re doing early American composers, and part of that program is going to be Ives’s Concord Sonata in February. Free Concord Sonata! Life doesn’t get much better than that (well, maybe free Ives’s Fourth Symphony…). Sarah Wolfson was a wonderful interpreter of Copland’s Dickinson songs, which are my favorite English language Lieder. Dickinson, I think, resonated with Copland for some reason. He found in her words the spirituality that his religion never offered him. When a composer has an intense connection to his text, the result is made that much better.
Sarah Wolfson, dressed casually in an oversized sweater as if she were just stopping by to sing a few songs, was exceptional. Her very limited use of vibrato was tasteful and aided in understanding the lyrics. There is never an awkwardly placed accent or phrase break in these songs, you get the sense that Copland really knew these words and knew exactly how to set them to music. Wolfson did a lot of “acting” in her performance, which I sometimes object to, but in these songs it worked. Her bubbly excitement for “Dear March, come in!” was a wonderful contrast to the contemplative sadness of “Sleep is Supposed to Be” (the second and third songs in this video):
The cycle as a whole is tinged with the specter of death, present in the stuttering snaps that you hear at 4:30 in the previous video which run like a motif throughout the cycle. As the singer moves through each song, she gets closer to the inevitability of “The Chariot,” that Death will “kindly stop for her.” There is no set of art songs in English that come close, well, maybe Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” but that’s for another post.
Finally, my Copland immersion week ended with the Piano Quartet, written in the same year as the Dickinson Songs (1950), representing Copland’s first foray into the twelve-tone technique, a method that he chose to employ frequently throughout his final years, much to the dismay and criticism of some of his friends and supporters (Bernstein hated Copland’s serial works). The remarkable thing about this three-movement piece is that it always sounds quintessentially Copland. Just listen to the opening, with its typical stretching out across wide-spread intervals, slowly ascending. If this were purely consonant, it could be Appalachian Spring:
Copland designs his row to sound more consonant than most twelve-tone works, and through his own loose manipulations of the row, is able to construct many of his signature harmonies and sonorities. In the “you’re-about-to-hear-some-modern-music” shpiel that the violist gave before the performance, we were told that the audience at the premiere was puzzled by this work, but he hoped that even if we were puzzled, we would still find it beautiful. This might be the most beautiful sounding 12-tone work there is, actually (Berg’s Lyric Suite being a close second). It’s certainly one of the easiest for a neophyte to listen to, its dissonances relatively tame and melodies rather smooth compared to the jagged harshness of Schoenberg or Webern.
The strings from the Voxare Quartet, along with Orion Weiss on piano, gave a phenomenal performance of this work. The cellist, who looked like he was about 22 and fresh out of conservatory, almost looked as if he was playing heavy metal during the fiery passages of the second movement (starting around 2:20):
Compared to that recording, the Voxare’s rhythms were perhaps not as scherzando and playful, however, their intensity far surpassed it. They played with a fire and drive that this work demands, treating it with respect but attacking the notes, bringing out all the thorny dissonances which provided an even greater contrast with the cantabile moments. Again, hearing this one live was a first for me, and it was a joy.
If nothing else, this week proved to me two things. 1) I love living in New York City, there is no other place on earth where I would hear this much obscure, modern American music. 2) Copland’s appeal lies beyond just his “pop” hits. I love the Fanfare for the Common Man, and I heard a version of Appalachian Spring for 13 instruments last year that made me happy all week. But there is another composer beyond those works, and this week’s concerts hopefully turned a few more people on to this “other” Copland.
[BONUS]: Although this isn’t the version I heard, the YouTubes have a version of “The World Feels Dusty” from the Dickinson songs sung by American soprano goddess Dawn Upshaw, in the orchestrated version that Copland made a few years after writing the songs for voice/piano. It is breathtaking