Symphony Study 55 | Copland: Short Symphony (Symphony No. 2)

by Glenn on October 30, 2016

Aaron Copland (1900–1990)
Short Symphony (Symphony No. 3)
first performance: 23 November 1934, Mexico City

i. Incisivo
ii. Expressivo
iii. Preciso e ritmico

I am fairly certain this is the first American composer I’ve encountered so far on Michael Steinberg’s list. I would have guessed that Copland’s Symphony No. 3, including its famous Fanfare for the Common Man theme, would have made the list, but Steinberg reveals, “all in all, I cannot believe the piece,” which I found an intriguing criticism.

As far as this symphony, “Short” says it right. The whole thing plays in just over 15′ on the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra recording I listened to. There doesn’t always appear to be a correlation between the length of a piece and how long it takes to write it. Copland wrote,

“Although the performance time is only fifteen minutes, it took me, on and off, almost two years to complete it. … [I]f I expended so much time and effort on the Short Symphony it was because I wanted to write as perfect a piece as I could.”

Cover artwork from "Copland the Modernist," a recording by the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. New York: BMG Classics, 1996 (09026-68541-2).

The best feature of this symphony is that it sounds like Copland. Traits of his are on display here:

1. Big chords with transparency. They don’t contribute to a Brucknerian “cathedral of sound.” Instead, they make tall but lean structures, made of steel.

2. Melodies constructed on intervals rather than scales—an arpeggiated approach.

3. Rhythmic playfulness—varied meters.

The overall effect for me is cerebral. This is music for the head and not the heart. That coupled with the fact that it is so short makes me believe this symphony would work best as a program opener. There’s no tune you walk away humming and nothing that really grabs you. It goes in the “That was interesting” category of concert music rather than the “Wow, that was exhilarating—can’t wait to hear that again” group.

Steinberg writes,

“Much of Copland’s music in the 1920s was touched by the rhythms and gestures of jazz.”

That may be true, but Copland didn’t seem to be interested in using jazz’s popular features. I missed a groove and a melodic memorableness.

One comment

[…] symphony is an event. Of course, this isn’t true of every symphony. I listened to Aaron Copland’s Short Symphony (No. 2) the other day. This is not a main dish; it’s more of an appetizer. Often, though, the symphony is […]

by Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 for Organ « on 14 November 2016 at 5:10 pm. #