Aaron Copland became the leading voice of his generation, led there by Damrosch, Koussevitzky, and a composition teacher who happened to play the organ, Nadia Boulanger.
Aaron Copland (1900–1990). Symphony for Organ and Orchestra (1924)Listen on SoundCloud Listen on Spotify
Hi everybody, I’m Kile Smith, and welcome to Fleisher Discoveries. Fleisher Discoveries is a podcast from the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in 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.
We’ve welcomed Aaron Copland’s music to Discoveries a few times before, both on the podcast and earlier on the radio show. We’ve played his Fanfare for the Common Man, the Dance Symphony, the Short Symphony, Our Town, the Clarinet Concerto, and the suite from his opera The Tender Land previously. But today we’re going to do something I don’t think we’ve ever done before on Discoveries, and that is, we’re going to play something we’ve already played before. That piece is his very first symphony, the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra.
Back in 2011 we paired this with a work by Charles-Marie Widor, his Third Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, and back then I was writing one-page essays. If you can remember back when we read things on paper, I consciously made each essay to fit on one side of a piece of paper, because we mailed these out and also had them as handouts for conferences. Fleisher Discoveries began in October of 2002, we were not emailing right away from the Free Library of Philadelphia, and so that’s how I did it.
I kept to that format even though we were soon emailing. The way we did the shows on the radio was this: I’d figure out the show, how many pieces and composers, and how long we’d talk about each one. It had to add up to exactly one hour. Jack Moore and I were co-hosting it, so once a month I’d take the subway up Broad Street from the Free Library to WRTI, arrive with my notes and my plan for the show—how many minutes to talk about each piece and so forth—and then Jack and I would go ahead and talk. It was recorded, and our engineer Joe would later add the music in. We rarely hit the schedule right on, so we had to adjust how long we talked as we got closer to the end of the show, since Joe would keep a clock on us. I was usually the one—okay, I was always the one—who gabbed too much.
Anyway, after the taping, I’d have a week or so to then actually write up the essay, from my notes and from remembering what we talked about, and, with fitting in the top banner, side notes, and a photo onto the page, that’d leave room for about 500 words, give or take. It was a good system and a good discipline, even though once email started I could’ve made it any length.
Now with the podcast it’s entirely different. It’s all on me. I write, record, and edit everything, and can write and talk as much as I want, since podcasts can be any length. It turns out that even though the Fleisher Discoveries podcast is usually shorter than an hour, I end up writing two, three, or four times as much, so it takes as long or even longer to produce the show from start to finish. And, of course, I don’t have Joe to keep track of my gabbing.
Anyway, all that is to say that the last time we played this Copland piece, I gave most of the essay over to Widor. The Copland Symphony for Organ and Orchestra got barely a couple of paragraphs.
Also, this is a different recording: an exciting live recording brought to us from the American International Music Fund archives, which Gary Galván and the Fleisher Collection have been digitizing. And I think it’s such an interesting piece, not only because it’s by America’s most famous classical music composer, but it’s his very first orchestral work.
Actually the first time he ever heard his own orchestration of anything was in the rehearsals for this symphony. But, being a symphony, why such an unusual work that pairs an organ with an orchestra? To answer that, we need to look at where Copland was at the time.
Copland was born in 1900 in Brooklyn. Even though Brooklyn became part of New York City two years before he was born, he’d always say he was from Brooklyn, not from New York. In fact, referring to the jazz rhythms of this symphony’s middle movement, Copland said they wouldn’t have been there had he not been born in Brooklyn.
Which I understand. I’m from Pennsauken, which is in New Jersey, but I always say I’m from South Jersey. Nothing against the rest of the state, but if you’re from South Jersey, you know what I’m talking about. Actually, come to think of it, my old co-host Jack Moore, who’s from Bridgeton, about an hour south of Pennsauken, way down in that belly of New Jersey, told me, “Pennsauken isn’t South Jersey, nothing up there is South Jersey!” Well, somehow we learned to make peace with that.
But getting back to Copland and Brooklyn, he took music lessons there and in New York City, that is, Manhattan, and at 21 left for France to study at the American Conservatory at Fontainebleu. It was organized after World War I by General Pershing and the conductor of the New York Symphony, Walter Damrosch.
The teacher he studied with there was Nadia Boulanger. He quickly made a name for himself in Paris as this talented American composer. One evening Nadia took him to the home of Serge Koussevitzky, who had left the Soviet Union and was just about to become director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Sergei Prokofiev was also there. At one point Koussevitzky turned to Copland and said, “You vill write an organ concerto, Mademoiselle Boulanger vill play it and I vill conduct it!”
Yes, I forgot to say that Nadia was an organist, and that’s how his first symphony came to be kind of like an organ concerto. He wrote it for his teacher. A tour had been arranged for her to play in the US, and she had suggested to Damrosch and Koussevitzky, unbeknownst to Copland, that he compose something for her, and them.
Copland was frankly not sure if he could do it, having never written for orchestra, let alone for such big stages as New York and Boston. But Boulanger convinced him he could, and it worked out wonderfully.
The Symphony for Organ and Orchestra is in three movements, a Prelude, Scherzo, and Finale. The movements become progressively longer, with the Finale about half the length of the entire work. The very first notes you hear in the Prelude travel through the whole symphony. The sound has a harmonic color different from his later works you probably know, from the Copland of Appalachian Spring and Billy the Kid. This sound comes mainly from two sources: Europe and jazz.
All the rage in Europe in the ’20s was the octatonic scale, or an 8-note scale made up of alternating whole steps and half steps. It’s actually two scales, depending on if you start with the whole step or start with the half-step. The major or minor scale we’re used to has seven notes, so you have to squeeze things a little to make an 8-note scale. It’s an odd sound but not too outlandish, particularly if your only alternative to major/minor is the 12-note scale.
Prokofiev, who was at the Koussevitzky house, often used the octatonic. Bartók did, and so did many others. One characteristic of it is that you can easily emphasize the tritone. Now what does that mean? The tritone is a half-step shy of a fifth and the fifth is, you might say, the foundational interval of tonal music. By shaving a half-step off that and hitting it a lot, the music, although tonal, always feels off-kilter. It can be jocular or frightening or anything in between, but that oddness is always there.
The other source for Copland was jazz. Here, it isn’t jazz harmonies so much as rhythm, which he propels by setting up competing off-rhythms. One line will have two eighths followed by an eighth rest, with accents at different places. The other line will flip the notes and rests and accents backward at times, and all of it together gives the sense of a motor chugging along.
The Finale has been described as in a modified sonata form, which is odd, since sonata-form architecture is usually reserved, classically, for first movements, being an excellent way of presenting and restating themes and counter-themes. So it is’t a surprise when we learn that Copland had originally intended this movement to be the first!
What’s really remarkable is how accomplished the work is, and how well it fits the orchestra. Copland, born in 1900, wrote this in 1924, but his birthday was in November, so this is the work of a 23-year-old, which gives rise to the famous quote from Damrosch, who joked from the New York Symphony stage, “If a gifted young man can write a symphony like that at age twenty-three, within five years he will be ready to commit murder.”
Well, he did no such thing of course and Aaron Copland became the respectable leading voice of his generation in American classical music, led there from the beginning by Damrosch, Koussevitzky with the Boston performance next, and a composition teacher who played the organ, Nadia Boulanger.
So let’s hear it now, the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra by Aaron Copland. The work is from 1924, and the performance we’re about to hear is from Boston forty years later, Erich Leinsdorf leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra with its organist Berj Zamkochian, in 1964.
[Aaron Copland. Symphony for Organ and Orchestra]
The Symphony for Organ and Orchestra by Aaron Copland, in this live 1964 recording. The organist was Berj Zamkochian. Erich Leinsdorf led the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This live recording was made possible by the American International Music Fund, and digitized from the archives in the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music, in the ongoing project under curator Gary Galván, at the Free Library of Philadelphia. I’m Kile Smith.
And that recording project of the American International Music Fund was funded by that same Serge Koussevitzy, who collaborated with Nadia Boulanger and Walter Damrosch to commission Copland for this work. And now the Koussevitzky Fund continues to bear fruit all these years later, with the help of the Fleisher Collection.
Now, Copland does have an actual Symphony No. 1 or First Symphony, so what is that piece, if this Symphony for Organ and Orchestra is his first orchestral piece? Copland was nothing if not smart, and realizing that performances of this first piece were naturally limited to orchestras that had access to organs and solo organists, he re-orchestrated it. He eliminated the solo organ, added more horns, trumpets, and an alto saxophone, wrote the organ music into that, and called that his First Symphony. He did that three years later, in 1928, and in 1931 the new version was premiered by the Berlin Philharmonic under Ernest Ansermet.
The Fleisher Collection is on Facebook, and I’m on Facebook, I’m on Twitter @KileSmithMusic, and kilesmithmusic on Instagram, and my email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Let me know how you liked this installment of Fleisher Discoveries. Tony in North Jersey—North Jersey, you see what I did there—Tony wrote in to say that he liked last month’s episode on Gene Gutchë and Ernest Bloch, especially the stories about Murray Panitz, the Philadelphia Orchestra flutist. Tony knows lots of orchestral players and conductors and it made him laugh.
Thanks, Tony! I do find these podcasts fun to put together, and I hope you’re enjoying them. All of our podcasts are available all of the time, so check us out anytime for what we hope are the interesting stories we have for you. Stay tuned for more Fleisher Discoveries podcasts coming to you every month, right here.
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.