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Collection Aaron Copland Collection

Modernism, Mexico and Beyond

Aaron Copland and Serge Koussevitzky, Tanglewood,
Music Division, Library of Congress.

Copland's music of the late 1920s drives towards two of his key works, both uncompromising in their modernism: the Symphonic Ode of 1929 and the Piano Variations of 1930. The fate of these compositions contrasts sharply. While the Piano Variations is not often performed in concert, it is well known to pianists because although it does contain virtuoso passages, even those of very modest ability can "play at" the work in private. It represents the twentieth-century continuation of the great tradition of keyboard variations—the tradition that produced such works as the Bach Goldberg Variations, the Beethoven Diabelli Variations, and the Brahms Handel Variations. The Symphonic Ode, on the other hand, remains almost unknown: an intense symphonic movement of the length and heft of a Mahler first movement, it was considered unperformable by the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, otherwise the most potent American champion of Copland's work during the first half of the century. Koussevitzky did perform a revised version in 1932; but even with a second, more extensive revision in 1955, the Ode is seldom played. It is Copland's single longest orchestral movement.

Perhaps as a reaction to the performance problems of the Symphonic Ode, Copland's next two orchestral works deal in shorter units of time: the Short Symphony of 1933 requires fifteen minutes for three movements and the six Statements for orchestra of 1935 last only nineteen minutes. Yet in fact these works were somewhat more complex than the Ode; in particular, the wiry, agile rhythms of the opening movement of the Short Symphony proved too much for both the conductors Serge Koussevitzky and Leopold Stokowski. In the end it was Carlos Chávez and the Orquesta Sinfónica de México who gave the Short Symphony its premiere. In 1937 Copland arranged the Short Symphony as the Sextet for piano, clarinet, and string quartet (the ensemble is an homage to Roy Harris's 1926 Concerto for the same combination of instruments); and it is in its sextet form that the Short Symphony is most often heard.

Aaron Copland walking down a Mexican road, Music Division, Library of Congress.

It may have been partly Copland's friendship with Carlos Chávez that drew him to Mexico. Copland first visited Mexico in 1932 and returned frequently in later years. His initial delight in the country is related in his letter of January 13, 1933, to Mary Lescaze; photographs of his visits to Mexico may be found in this online collection. His interest in Mexico is also reflected in his music, including El Salón México (1936) and the Three Latin American Sketches (1972).

Mexico was not Copland's only Latin American interest. A 1941 trip to Havana suggested his Danzón Cubano. By the early 1940s he was friends with South American composers such as Jacobo Ficher, and in 1947 he toured South America for the State Department. (Some of the folk music he heard in Rio de Janeiro on this trip appears in the second movement of his Clarinet Concerto of 1948.) Copland in fact envisioned "American music" as being music of the Americas. His own use of Mexican material in the mid-1930s helped make his style more accessible to listeners not committed to modernism: El Salón México is the earliest of his works to appear regularly in anthologies Copland's best-known music.

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