Copland: Symphonic Ode

Aaron Copland was born in Brooklyn, New York, on November 14, 1900, and died in Peekskill, New York, on December 2, 1990. The Symphonic Ode was composed in the years from 1927 to 1929, and first performed on February 19, 1932, by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony. The revised version, which we hear this evening, was introduced by the Boston Symphony with Charles Munch conducting on February 3, 1956. The work is dedicated to the memory of Natalie and Serge Koussevitzky. The first San Francisco Symphony performances, in March 1996, were led by Michael Tilson Thomas; he also led the most recent SFS subscription performances, in November 1996. The score calls for two piccolos (first doubling third flute) and two flutes, three oboes and English horn, two B-flat clarinets with E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet, three bassoons and contrabassoon, eight horns (of which four are ad lib.), four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, tam-tam, snare drum, bass drum, glockenspiel, Chinese blocks, cymbals, field drum, wood block, xylophone, triangle, slapstick, piano, and strings. Performance time: about nineteen minutes.

Copland was in the first wave of Americans to go to Paris for studies with Nadia Boulanger, and she did more than help him develop the technique that freed him to be himself. It was through her that he met Serge Koussevitzky, who became conductor of the Boston Symphony in 1924. Koussevitzky believed passionately in the cause of new music and in his obligation as head of one of America's most important musical institutions to support American musicians. He presented Copland's Organ Symphony and went on to give the first performances of his Music for the Theater in 1925, the Piano Concerto in 1927, and the Symphonic Ode in 1932.

As for the Symphonic Ode, Koussevitzky had offered Copland a commission for a work to celebrate the Boston Symphony's fiftieth anniversary. But when the Ode went into rehearsal at the end of March 1930, conductor and orchestra experienced tremendous difficulty with the constant changes of tempo and meter. Copland worked hard to simplify the notation, but he suggested the premiere be postponed so he could clarify the appearance of the music on the page still more. When Koussevitzky was finally able to introduce the work, it was generally well-received in the press, though some audiences shrank from its dissonances. 

A performance in 1932 in Mexico City under Carlos Ch├ívez went well, but the Ode was not heard again until Thor Johnson conducted it at the Juilliard School in 1946. The Boston Symphony’s seventy-fifth anniversary provided an occasion to revise the score. This time, reviews were thoroughly negative, and Copland found Munch's conducting "stiff and unconvincing. . . . I sure do wish I could hear it conducted by an American." 

The Ode was one of Copland's favorites among his works. He thought of it as the piece in which he announced that he had grown up, and many years after its composition he tried to step back and paint its portrait: "The Ode resembles me at the time [of my thirtieth birthday], full of ideas and ideals, introspective and serious, but still showing touches of youthful jazz days, reflections of a Jewish heritage, remnants of Paris (Boulanger's la grande ligne), influences of Mahler (the orchestration) and Stravinsky (motor rhythms). Looking ahead, one can hear . . . the beginnings of a purer, non-programmatic style, an attempt toward an economy of material and transparency of texture that would be taken much further in the next few years. . . .  I was attempting to write a piece of music with an unbroken logic so thoroughly unified that the very last note bears a relation to the first. I used a two-measure blues motif (from my Nocturne for violin and piano of 1926) as the musical basis of all five sections." Copland was often asked about the title, and he explained that it was "not meant to imply connection with a literary idea. It is not an ode to anything in particular, but rather a spirit that is to be found in the music itself."

The Ode begins in what composer Phillip Ramey has called Copland's "laying-down-the-law" mood, with trumpets and trombones, soon joined by horns, filling the hall with their proclamations. Before long, they involve the whole orchestra in their rhetoric. The lines are jagged, and their combination yields some fiercely dissonant harmonies, although brilliant and insistent major triads are also part of the vocabulary. After a while, a more lyric temper prevails, initiated by a single muted trumpet. As the strings develop some beautifully gauged contrapuntal textures, the speed increases, eventually landing in a real Allegro.

Here, I imagine, is where Koussevitzky and the 1930 Boston Symphony broke down. This is a scherzo with constant shifts in meter. The music is capricious, exuberant, humorous, very physical and athletic.

Suddenly the slow music from the beginning returns, though the ordering of events is much rearranged. Then the scherzo reappears, but hushed, and punctuated by brush strokes on a cymbal. This time it leads to a hoochy-koochy dance, begun by timpani and piano, with violists pretending they are percussionists too. A grand slowing down brings us back to the original slow tempo, and, organizing a mountainous pileup of sonorities that indicates he had studied the close of the Mahler Second well, Copland brings his Symphonic Ode to its grandiloquent close.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music

Recordings: Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony (RCA Victor Red Seal)  |  Aaron Copland conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (Sony)  |  Gerard Schwarz conducting the Seattle Symphony (Naxos)

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)