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Aaron Copland (1900–1990). The Tender Land, Orchestral Suite (1958)

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Hi, and welcome to Fleisher Discoveries! I’m Kile Smith. Fleisher Discoveries is a podcast from the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music and the Free Library of Philadelphia. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection. There’s a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast every month on SoundCloud and Spotify; just search “Fleisher Discoveries” to find every one of our podcasts.

It is April and it was April, the time when the world opens up to spring, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was premiering a work about spring in the Midwest, and about planting time, and about young love. The orchestral work was by the most widely known American classical composer, but it had undergone a problematic journey and success was not assured, even with a leading orchestra in what we might call that capital of the Midwest, and under one of the greatest of conductors, Fritz Reiner.

The orchestral piece in this April 10th, 1958 premiere was by Aaron Copland, and it was the suite from his only full-length opera, The Tender Land.

He had composed it from 1952 to ’54 for the NBC Television Opera Theatre. Can you imagine, a television network running an opera series? It ran from 1951 to 1964, and started with a bang with the biggest hit of its run, Amahl and the Night Visitors by Gian Carlo Menotti, the first opera composed for television. Menotti had two other operas produced by NBC. Other composers included in the series were Lukas Foss, Norman Dello Joio, and Bohuslav Martinů.

But not the most famous of them all, Aaron Copland. He wrote The Tender Land for NBC, and they…well, they rejected it. Undeterred, Copland took it to the New York City Opera. They agreed to take it on. Thomas Schippers was the conductor, and Jerome Robbins the director for the premiere in 1954, on April 1st.

However, the critical response was underwhelming, with deficiencies in the dramatic shape and characterizations pointed out. Perhaps an opera written for television didn’t translate well to the stage, but in any case Copland later referred to the response with a wry sense of humor. “The one opera I’ve composed had a reception which could hardly be called triumphant,” he said.

Copland and the librettist, Erik Johns, writing under the pseudonym of Horace Everett, made changes in the opera that very year, including a lengthening of Act II, and worked further on it in 1955 for another performance. Copland conducted a concert performance in 1965 and also cut the opera somewhat for a 1965 recording. In 1987, just three years before his death, Copland authorized a reduction of the opera’s instrumentation to 13 instruments, the same ensemble he had used for Appalachian Spring.

That’s a lot of revising, but in the world of opera, it is not atypical. As an opera is finding its legs, revisions are often made for perceived weaknesses in the storyline or in the music, but sometimes composers change things for reasons of practicality. Different singers, different venues, how big or small the stages or the halls are, can all affect an opera’s editing history.

But let’s go back to the suite Copland extracted in 1958 for the performance we’re about to hear, and at this point we should talk about the actual story. Copland was inspired to write The Tender Land because of the 1936 book by James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Agee’s book about Southern farmers during the Depression, and its black-and-white photographs by Walker Evans, struck Copland not only with its harsh honesty, but also by its revealing the strong sense of fortitude and humanity in the face of the bleak 1930s.

The libretto really has little to do with the Agee book, except that they share an underlying flavor. On a Midwest farm, Laurie is about to graduate from high school, and in her big aria, known simply as “Laurie’s Song,” she feels she’s outgrowing the farm, that time is growing short, and that the world, beckoning from beyond the fence, is wide.

There’s talk of two men who’ve drifted into town, causing trouble, just as Grandpa has hired two new men for seasonal work. Laurie begins to fall for one of them, Martin, and the cast sings what has become the stand-out moment of the opera and one of Copland’s most-recognized tunes, “The Promise of Living.”

At her graduation party and dance in Act II, Laurie and Martin fall further in love and kiss, which Grandpa sees. Even though news comes that the two rabble-rousers have been caught, meaning that Martin and his friend are innocent, Grandpa tells the men that they need to leave the farm. Laurie and Martin talk about eloping, but Martin, on his friend’s insistence at the danger if they’re caught, decides to leave while Laurie is packing. On discovering this in Act III, Laurie decides to leave the farm after all, and to make her own way in the world.

The orchestral suite is in three parts, played without pause, the Introduction and Love Music as the first section, and then the Party Scene, and finally closing with the Promise of Living. So, from the April 1st 1954 premiere of The Tender Land at New York City Opera, we go to the April 10th, 1958 premiere of the orchestral suite in Chicago.

This recording, as we’ve been highlighting these past few months, comes from the American International Music Fund, the project funded by the Koussevitzky Foundation to make live recordings of orchestral works available. The Fleisher Collection was one of seven repositories of these hundreds of tape recordings, and Fleisher is now digitizing the entire project. It’s a huge undertaking, but really underscores the purpose of the AIMF to make these available, and is exactly in line with the purpose of the Fleisher Collection.

And so on Fleisher Discoveries, Fritz Reiner conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in this live recording, from April 10th, 1958, the world premiere of the orchestral suite from the opera The Tender Land, by Aaron Copland.

[Aaron Copland. The Tender Land, Orchestral Suite]

Aaron Copland’s orchestral suite from his only full-length opera, The Tender Land. The opera is from 1954, this suite Copland extracted in 1958, and we’ve just heard the world premiere performance of it by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Fritz Reiner. This is Fleisher Discoveries and I’m Kile Smith.

Copland’s opera took many twists and turns, from being rejected by NBC for a television production, to its premiere at New York City Opera, to not very good reviews, to revisions, lengthenings, shortenings, different instrumentations, and to this suite, which we’ve been able to hear because it was recorded under the American International Music Fund and just digitized by the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

By the way, Copland needn’t have worried, because the critical reaction to the suite was, and has been, overwhelmingly positive. And critics have been somewhat more positive about the opera, too, in the decades since the premiere. It is a delicate opera and while it does find its way into professional theaters, it has seemed to find a natural home with the young voices and simple staging in colleges and universities. I’m glad to be able to bring the music to you, in the guise of this suite, for Fleisher Discoveries.

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And thanks again for joining me today on Fleisher Discoveries, a podcast produced by the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Every month we have a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast for you on Spotify and SoundCloud. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection, and I’m Kile Smith. Stay well and I hope to see you next time on Fleisher Discoveries.

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