Aaron Copland was born in Brooklyn, New York, on November 14, 1900, and died in Peekskill, New York, on December 2, 1990. He composed Danzón Cubano in Oakland, New Jersey during the fall of 1942. It was initially written as a work for two pianos, and that version was first performed on December 9, 1942, with Copland and Leonard Bernstein at the keyboards. Copland’s orchestration of the work, made in 1946, was first performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, with Reginald Stewart conducting, in February 1946. Michael Tilson Thomas led the first San Francisco Symphony subscription performances of Danzón Cubano in September 2000; the most recent SFS subscription concerts were also led by MTT, in September 2004. The score calls for two flutes (second doubling piccolo) and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, Chinese blocks, claves, cowbell, cymbals, gourd, maracas, slapstick, snare drum, woodblock, xylophone, piano, and strings. Performance time: about six minutes.
Aaron Copland is the American composer, and in his music he created a sound that continues to be identified with this country. But he had an enduring fascination with things Latin American, too, and Danzón Cubano is a work in which Copland the musical populist reaches out to embrace a culture beyond his own, one that captivated and moved him.
In April 1941 the composer and Victor Kraft traveled to Havana, where Copland finished writing his second book, The New Music. Four months later, he embarked on an extensive, four-month tour that took him throughout Latin America as a representative of the Committee of Inter-American Relations, an organization that carried out its mission under the auspices of Nelson A. Rockefeller, who was serving as President Roosevelt’s Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs. On the way home from his tour—a whirlwind of lectures, concerts, and cultural diplomacy—Copland stopped again in Havana, which had claimed a special place in his affection.
The immediate musical reflection of his experiences in Havana were a pair of Cuba-inspired compositions, the choral piece Las Agachadas and the orchestral Danzón Cubano. He wrote the latter as a six-minute work for two pianos, for a concert celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the League of Composers, held at New York’s Town Hall. Copland, who served as the evening’s master of ceremonies, was joined by Leonard Bernstein to premiere the Danzón Cubano; on that occasion, the work was presented under the title Birthday Piece, a reference not only to the League of Composers’ anniversary, but also to the birthday of Rudy Burckhardt, to whom the piece is dedicated and who had entertained Copland and Kraft during their visit to Havana in April and May.
A sort of lighthearted rondo, the Danzón Cubano employs four separate Cuban themes, each one of them infectious, which bounce about in a texture of polyrhythms, typical Cuban metrical divisions, smile-inducing syncopations, and relatively straightforward harmonies. As a genre, the danzón was not a popular ballroom dance, but rather, as Copland described it to Vivian Perlis in Copland: 1900 through 1942, “a stately dance, quite different from the rumba, conga, and tango, and one that fulfills a function rather similar to that of the waltz in our own music, providing contrast to some of the more animated dances. The special charm of the danzón is a certain naïve sophistication. Its mood alternates between passages of rhythmic precision and a kind of nonsentimental sweetness under a nonchalant guise.”
Though Copland expanded his Danzón Cubano for orchestral forces, he maintained a special affection for the original setting and had a way of revisiting it on special occasions. According to the composer and raconteur Ned Rorem, a dinner celebrating Copland’s 70th birthday at the Essex House in New York “terminated with Danzón Cubano performed at two pianos by Copland and Bernstein with the élan of a pair of drunken sailors, all harmless fun. . . .” And nearly a decade later, on December 15, 1979, the New York Philharmonic’s long-time principal pianist, Paul Jacobs, convinced Copland to join him in an appearance at the Bottom Line, in Greenwich Village, in an evening exploring the influence of jazz on modern classical music.
—James M. Keller
More About the Music
Recordings: Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony (Decca) | Aaron Copland playing the piano four-hands version (Arbiter)
Reading: Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man, by Howard Pollack (Henry Holt) | Copland: 1900 through 1942,the first of Vivian Perlis’s two volumes of oral-history collaborations with the composer (St. Martin’s Griffin) | The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland, edited by Elizabeth B. Crist and Wayne Shirley (Yale University Press) | Aaron Copland: A Reader, edited by Richard Kostelanetz (Routledge)
DVD: Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony in Copland and the American Sound, part of our Keeping Score series, available from SFS Media and online at keepingscore.org.