Aaron Copland – George Gershwin

MEANWHILE, an even intenser force is at work, adjusting men vigorously to a rapidly changing environment. Compositions of a marked individuality have recently begun appearing in America at the hands of Americans; and individuality, we know, is the sign and condition of the strong natural impulse. Great freedom is not, of course, to be found in the works of Copland, Chavez and Varèse, the members of this recent, most advanced class. Like so much American life, American music is still in bonds. We have no “great composers.” But a certain warm integrity of style and independence in the release of form is current. New experiences in the sonorous field are forthcoming. Most important of all, music is commencing to represent the forces of American life and interpret them in a large way; to place us in what might have been a “shrieking wilderness of steel,” but is now an intelligible world. To be sure, a certain amount of integrity, novelty and vision are present in the examples of both the preceding classes of music, the eclectic no less than the traditional. But among the eclectics, the immersion in the stream of things is not direct: “protected”; and among the traditionalists, it is conservative, along racial lines. Only among the “moderns” is the contact quite spontaneous, in response to new, originally authoritative prompting hence, it is only in their work that the elements of music appear entirely refreshed from the bath of life.

We meet this latest, most advanced sort of product, at first in American music, in the compositions of Aaron Copland. For while Copland’s work is plainly that of a young man, wanting mellowness, wide inclusive, and the warmest intensity, it is indubitably autonomous; and symbolic of the new world on every hard green page of it. We do not know where it came from. We merely know that we have not met it before; at least, not in the guise of sonority; for it has a certain likeness to other things encountered in other spheres of life; and that it places us immensely alertly in the stream of metallic, modern American things.

The earmark of Copland’s music is leanness, slenderness of sound, sharpened by the fact that it is found in connection with a strain of grandiosity. For we associate grandiosity with a Wagnerian fatness, thickness, and heaviness; and Copland’s concerto, and the finale of his symphony, perhaps the two most elevated of his compositions, give us the pleasant shock of finding it both lithe and imponderous. The jarring piano and strings of the recent severe little trio, sound hard, like stone or metal things. Part of this general astringency flows from Copland’s preference for shrill, cock-crowing, naked effects, and part from a predilection for staccato themes, with wide intervals and defiant flourishes. No doubt, it is to be connected with the style of the later Strawinsky, indubitably influential on the young composer. It is quite possible that, had Strawinsky not recently taken to writing archaic series of major triads, we might not find Copland using them as extensively as he has done in his sober recent piece for string-quartet (later rewritten for full string orchestra) . And it is a fact that, like Copland, several contemporary composers, notably Hindemith, affect an archaic severity and asperity of style; preferring the harsher, sharper, more grinding and nasal tones to the softer, more mellifluous and vibrant string-sounds loved by Wagner and the impressionists. Still, Copland’s general slenderness is distinct and eminently individual. It is wiry. If he is a purist, he is an American one.

The whole of Copland’s music, slow movements as well as rapid, are originally lively. A factor in this liveliness is the decided motoriness. By this, one means something more than mere rhythmicality, for the concept of rhythmicality is included in the concept of music there being no music without continuity of texture, logical succession and flow, unity and variety. What one means by this motoriness of Copland’s, is its strong kinesis, its taut, instinctive “go.” Wistful or burlesque, slow or fast, his pieces have enormous snap. Many of his rhythmic schemes are of the greatest originality. Even though certain of his favorite polyrhythms, the slow three eighths plus five eighths of the intermezzo of the suite Music for the Theatre, and the fast three eights plus five eighths of the body of the concerto, are synthesized from jazz, Copland’s method of piling them up is his own. The commercial music, of course, does not sustain these polyrhythms, sandwiching them in between customary measures, and shorting them. Copland however lets them have their will, sustaining them for long, thrilling, dizzy stretches. Other of his lively rhythms are equally personal, the hiccoughing beat of the scherzo of the symphony, for example; iterated with a mad mechanic joy. And, whether careering over roofs or slowly balancing itself, this music remains a thing of abrupt, still logical changes, under high speed.

Another characteristic is the presence of control. Copland’s music strikingly . corroborates the theory that of all futilities, that of preaching about the necessity of discipline is the most futile, since discipline inheres in strength itself ‘and no strength comes unaccompanied by a direction to material, and a guiding sense of the extent of its own effectuality. Copland is one of the most critical of those at work today in the field of music. In fineness his sense of his materials is scarcely second to that of any contemporary musician; and we find him selecting ideas and discerning the potentialities of his subjects with an ever increasing acumen. It is only his earliest pieces that occasionally suffer from prolixity and rhythmical rigidity: in particular, certain dances of his ballet, Grohg. The mass of his compositions, even the more jazzy, relatively inconsequential recent ones, the violin pieces, say, are made of finely appreciated material well put together. Copland seems to have a developed capacity for conceiving music coolly in terms of the technical problem. The distinct architecturality of his best pieces reveals it. The concertos, the recent pieces for strings, are primarily structures of interplaying forms, volumes, movements. Not that they are not largely expressive. The first part of the concerto especially has a penetrating lyricism, something of passionate extension; and the string piece, representative of Copland’s leanly grand style, is elevated like the prelude to Lohengrin. Nor are these architectural pieces invariably severe. Copland has a taste for hot colours and garish jazziness, perhaps a happy consequence of his oriental-American psyche; and his work is exciting with all sorts of percussive brazen brilliance. Nonetheless, the great interest of his music remains the architectural one, the interest of the independent, projected, self-sufficient object. And in their structurality, their faithfulness to the line of strength, his tonal edifices resemble nothing so much as steel cranes, bridges, and the frames of skyscrapers before the masons smear them with their stonework.

Of course, this musicianship of Copland’s is still in its nubile stage. His gift is decidedly proficient but small, as yet so immature that it makes the impression not so much of something human, as of something coltlike: all legs, head, and frisking hide; cantering past on long uncertain stilts, the body oddly small in proportion to the motorpower, the head huge and as wooden and devilish as that of a rocking-horse. It’s an amusing affair, in the incompletude of organs, limbs, and skin; charming with the awkwardness of the large young thing not long from the mother. Impressive, too: since it’s so conspicuously the colt of American brass and momentum, of all that’s swift and daring, aggressive and unconstrained in our life; blood-brother of the new architecture and the other constructive flights of the bold temperaments. And still, it is a colt. With all his grandiosity and élan, Copland has not yet found a largely symbolic and inclusive form for his gift; or achieved, symphony and concerto not-withstanding, an expression of prime importance. A certain meagerness of experience, a uniformity in his moods is not to be overlooked. Indeed, and in spite of his recent sallies in string and piano-trio music, he may almost be said to have only two tempers, and to swing regularly from one to the other. The first, a rather wistful pastoral mood, a mood of lonely beginnings, early April afternoons, gray clouds, gurgling frogs, and perhaps a single, always single, blackbird, has contributed the first movement of the symphony, the third movement of Music for the Theatre, the violin nocturne, the introduction to the concerto, and the flute and clarinet song, As It Fell Upon a Day. The other, a wild, extravagant, cackling state, full of motor-madness, the old cat and fiddlesticks and the lunatic moon, is the progenitor of the early piece for string quartet, the second movement of the symphony, the second and fourth sections of Music for the Theatre, the violin serenade, the choral setting of Ezra Pound’s An Immortality, and the body of the concerto. Of course, other moods do register in Copland’s music. Neither the finale of the symphony, the recent piece for strings, or the reflections on a Jewish theme for piano-trio, fit into either of the dominant categories. Nor are the realizations of the two states ever monotonous or unprogressive. Indeed, they have become impressively stronger with the passing of the few years in which Copland’s career has run. One has merely to compare the little song after Barnefield with the massive opening of the concerto, and the early piece for string quartet with the body of the work for piano and orchestra, to gauge the wide extent of his growth. By and large, nonetheless, Copland’s work is contained in them; the more the pity since both moods are fundamentally incomplete; twin eccentric halves of the deeply swung state of feeling. The one is nostalgic; the other ironical.

To a certain degree, their almost absolute monarchy over the composer is to be ascribed to the fact that he found both of them, or at least their idiom, in jazz; the nostalgic one proceeding more from the blues, the ironical one more from jazz proper. Copland is one of the composers who have laid hold of the norms of our popular music, and utilized them for artistic purposes. But the mere fact that both are adumbrated by jazz, does not entirely account for their grip on him. That must be subjectively conditioned; for if Copland has helped himself to jazz effects, he has always done so independently, and inventively; anything but slavishly. A great difference exists between his use of them, and that of the great number of his contemporaries who have dug in the new mine. The European experimenters, for example, have done very little with what they have found. The music they have made with jazz rhythms and effects is of small actual value. The ragtime section of Parade, the ballet of Satie’s that started the movement to convert rag into musical values, is scarcely more than a quotation, with-out considerable ingenuity or distinction. Hindemith’s brutal jazz pages lack wit and smartness; the score of Krenek’s Jonny Spielt Auf is an hastily clapped-together affair, of little intrinsic interest. The most successful European jazz music is undoubtedly to be found in Milhaud’s ballet, La Creation du Monde, with its lengthy section based on a foxtrot measure. But while this work is one of the best sustained and most charming of the prolific Frenchman’s innumerable compositions, the jazz section is characteristically soft and homesick; almost timid in comparison with the body of Copland’s concerto and its exuberantly piled-up polyrhythms.

The American parallels of these experiments are equally indifferent. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Piano Concerto and An American in Paris have found a good deal of popular favor; and Gershwin himself is assuredly a gifted composer of the lower, unpretentious order; yet there is some question whether his vision permits him an association with the artists. He seems to have little feeling for reality. His compositions drowse one in a pink world of received ideas and sentiments. The Rhapsody in Blue is circus-music, pre-eminent in the sphere of tinsel and fustian. In daylight, nonetheless, it stands vaporous with its secondhand ideas and ecstasies; its old-fashioned Lisztian ornament and brutal, calculated effects, not so much music, as jazz dolled up. Gershwin’s concerto has an equal merit. The opening of the second movement, the Blues section, is charming and atmospheric; but the work is utterly bare of the impulsion toward a style which every living thing exhibits; and, like the Rhapsody, scarcely transcends the level of things made to please an undiscriminating public. An American in Paris is poorer in themes than either of its predecessors; and when, after losing its way, the music suddenly turns into the lively somewhat meaningless sort of flourish usually supplied the dramatic finales of musical comedy first-acts, we seem to hear Gershwin’s instrument, like Balaam’s ass, reproving the false prophet; directing him to the sphere congenial to his gift.

The experiments of William Grant Still with jazz and the blues compare favorably with those of Gershwin; but the difference between his jazz music and Copland’s is still huge. For Copland has actually absorbed jazz motives and correlated them with the developments of the past. Hence, the difference between his music and that of the other experimenters. For while they have taken jazz much as they found it, that is, impregnated with a superficial spirit, Copland has driven it far beyond its current uses, and substituted the expression of an almost Rabelaisian irony for its customary parody and blandishment.

For this reason, then, we find ourselves unwilling to believe that, if Copland’s still dominant two moods are fragmentary and eccentric, they are so because he was constrained by their origins. No; if they are still slightly unsatisfactory to what in ourselves demands a maturer experience, it is undoubtedly because in Copland we have the youth of an original musicianship itself. What indeed is more specifically boyish than the ambivalence of feelings of exception, separation, and reckless power and affirmation bordering upon the satiric and the unconcerned; of the sense of being outside and under things, and the sense of dancing on top of them in sheer mechanical exuberance?

A development, with its consequent amplification of meaning, and extension of the number of patterns in his art casts its shadow before it, in the string-music, in the etching-like trio (so much drier than Bloch’s opulent Hebraicisms) particularly in the last movement of the symphony. By no means his most successful page, this movement is extremely suggestive of the larger personality, the more earthfast, inclusive form, potential in the man and his musicianship. It was written, significantly, to gather and resolve the contradictory moods of the preceding introduction and scherzo, characteristically nostalgic and mechanical, and it embodies a feeling of things neither beneath them nor above them, but powerfully one with them and released through them; reconciling the two warring halves of a personality and clearing the way for its growth. True, the form of this finale is stiff; wanting the elegance and logic of the tender plaintive introduction and hiccoughing, jerking, machinery-mad scherzo; and leaving the brilliant little symphony half suspended in the air. Nonetheless, for all its abrupt transitions and lumbering volumes, the movement touches deep stratas. It is both grandiose and ardent, holding some state of being that is of our swift mechanical day and yet superior to it, in control of it; and converting man’s new obstreperous, mechanical arms into agents of beatitude. And it gives us a new sense of what is working around in Copland, and what his music is about. That control of the new environment, that attempt to humanize it, to be one with it and make it express human values—is it not strangely analogous to something in which the whole administrative, thinking, executive community is engaged? Is Copland, struggling to handle mechanical, impersonal rhythms in a deep, exalted spirit, anything but an integral part of a movement attempting the same in practical fields? For us, he most indisputably is not. But then his position is merely that of any independent musician, any important artist. The psyche of the artist is an integral part of the battlefield of life; perhaps the battlefield made apparent. Its conflicts, its defeats and victories are those of the community essentialized, objectified. It is the cross-section. To know what is going on in the life of a civilization, to measure its force and direction, you have but to examine its art.