Program Notes

Third Symphony

BORN: November 14, 1900. Brooklyn, NY
DIED: December 2, 1990. Peekskill, NY

COMPOSED: The roots of his Third Symphony reach as far back as 1942, when he wrote his Fanfare for the Common Man, which would eventually be incorporated into the symphony’s finale. Work on the symphony per se began in the summer of 1944, and the piece was finally completed on September 29, 1946. The symphony had been commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation and is dedicated "to the memory of my dear friend Natalie Koussevitzky," the wife of the conductor

WORLD PREMIERE: October 18, 1946. There was scarcely time for the ink to dry before Serge Koussevitzky led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the premiere

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—December 1950. Pierre Monteux conducted. MOST RECENT—April 2003. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted. In May 2003, MTT and the SFS performed the symphony on their European Tour

INSTRUMENTATION: Piccolo and 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes and English horn (doubling oboe), 2 clarinets with E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, tenor drum, bass drum, snare drum, tam-tam, cymbals, suspended cymbal, xylophone, glockenspiel, wood block, triangle, slapstick, ratchet, anvil, claves, tubular bells, 2 harps, celesta, piano, and strings

DURATION: About 38 mins

THE BACKSTORY  Especially in his later years, Aaron Copland was called “Dean of American Composers” so often that the title seemed almost a part of his surname. It was a title he deserved for many reasons, among them the fact that (as he put it) he was “a good citizen of the Republic of Music.” For Copland, that republic extended to Europe, where he had received much of his training in the studio of Nadia Boulanger in the 1920s, and throughout the Americas, where he traveled frequently as a representative of the State Department and other official agencies. Though he represented the pinnacle of an intense mid-century Americanism, Copland was no inwardly fixated nationalist; on the contrary, he was acutely interested in world politics and in how the United States fit into the larger sphere.

As the country crept towards and through World War II, Copland was so distracted by what he read in the papers that he found it sometimes difficult to concentrate on his composing. As with many American artists of his generation, he had become actively involved in leftist politics during the thirties, although his youthful optimism vis-à-vis the Soviet Union grew more ambivalent as he became aware of that nation’s cruel treatment of Shostakovich and other artists. Copland’s politics would land him in a measure of hot water during the grim days of the McCarthy era. But Copland was nothing if not honest, and he would not gainsay that his music was an expression of his overall sensibilities, which inevitably included his political emotions. As he put it at a Senate subcommittee hearing in 1953, “Musicians make music out of feelings aroused out of public events.”

During the years of World War II, Copland produced several works that were specifically and obviously related to “the war effort.” His Lincoln Portrait, in which a narrator recites Lincoln’s pleas about democratic principles and the responsibilities of citizenship, was unveiled in May 1942, and several months later Copland signed on to a project instigated by the Cincinnati Symphony’s conductor, Eugene Goossens, who commissioned eighteen composers to write fanfares for brass and percussion. “It is my idea,” Goossens said, “to make these fanfares stirring and significant contributions to the war effort.” In addition to Copland, the roster of participants included such eminent names as Henry Cowell, Paul Creston, Morton Gould, Howard Hanson, Darius Milhaud, Walter Piston, William Grant Still, Deems Taylor, and Virgil Thomson. Most of the pieces explicitly celebrated a single ally nation or military unit, and for a while it seemed that Copland would be no exception, as he weighed the possibility of writing a Fanfare for the Rebirth of Lidice (celebrating the Czech town that the Nazis had annihilated in 1942). In the end, however, he settled on a more general topic. “It was the common man, after all, who was doing all the dirty work in the war and the army,” he would later explain. “He deserved a fanfare.”

So was born the Fanfare for the Common Man, and Goossens led its premiere in Cincinnati on March 12, 1942. Its memorable contours became instantly popular: stark trumpets proclaiming a proud, unhurried theme born of optimistically rising intervals, leisurely expanding from a unison statement to two-part harmony and then fully harmonized texture of the entire brass section. Other explicitly “American” works followed in short order, most famously the ballets Rodeo (1942) and Appalachian Spring (1944), and also the never-published score for the Office of War Information propaganda film The Cummington Story (1945).

All this time, a symphony was also germinating in Copland’s mind. Symphonies were much on the minds of American composers just then. The genre had gained renewed prestige in the 1930s, and the nation’s composers set out in quest of The Great American Symphony just as surely as authors tried their hands at The Great American Novel. In 1936, Roy Harris set a high standard with his Third Symphony, a model of Americana marked by features that became even more well known through Copland’s works: simple but sophisticated melodies (often suggesting a kinship with folk tunes, but with their trajectories expanded to encompass the intervals of the fourth and fifth), harmonies stressing fourths rather than the traditional thirds, and a penchant for syncopation and polyrhythms.

Copland had already produced two symphonies. His first, for orchestra with organ, had been introduced in 1924 and was premiered in a revised version without organ (as his Symphony No. 1) in 1928. His Short Symphony (also known as his Symphony No. 2) followed in 1934. In March 1944, the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, a devoted champion of Copland’s, approached the composer with a commission for another major orchestral work, which he hoped to introduce at the outset of the Boston Symphony’s 1946 season. In Copland: Since 1943, the second volume of the impressive oral history prepared by the composer with Vivian Perlis, Copland provided many details about the genesis and early history of this work. We’ll let Copland’s account, taken from that volume, provide much of the story from here on.

“While in Bernardsville [New Jersey] in the summer of 1945,” he said, “I felt my Third Symphony finally taking shape. I had been working on various sections whenever I could find time during the past few years. My colleagues had been urging me to compose a major orchestral work. . . . Elliott Carter, David Diamond, and Arthur Berger reminded me about it whenever they had the opportunity. . . . They had no way of knowing that I had been working on such a composition for some time. I did not want to announce my intentions until it was clear in my own mind what the piece would become (at one time it looked more like a piano concerto than a symphony). The commission from Koussevitzky stimulated me to focus my ideas and arrange the material I had collected into some semblance of order.”

Copland, by the way, employed the locution “Third Symphony” as a sort of specific title for this work, preferring it to the more generic implication of “Symphony No. 3.” In the summer of 1944, he retreated to the remote village of Tepoztlan, Mexico, to work on the symphony’s first movement in the same relatively uninterrupted isolation that had served him more than a decade earlier when he composed his Short Symphony in Tlalpam, another Mexican town. The second movement waited until the following summer, which he spent in Bernardsville. “By September, I was able to announce to [the composer] Irving Fine, ‘I’m the proud father—or mother—or both—of a second movement. Lots of notes—and only eight minutes of music—such are scherzi! It’s not very original—mais ça marche du commencement jusque’au fin—which is a help.’ Having two movements finished gave me the courage to continue, but the completion seemed years off.”

In the fall of 1945, Copland headed to a rented property in Ridgefield, Connecticut. “Again, I told almost no one where I could be found. I felt in self-exile, but it was essential if I was to finish the symphony. By April I had a third movement to show for it. With Tanglewood reopening in the summer of 1946, and an October date set for the premiere, I headed to the MacDowell Colony [in Peterborough, New Hampshire] for the month of June to work on the last movement.” Copland enjoyed a bit of a head start, for he had decided the finale would incorporate the Fanfare for the Common Man of three years earlier. Here, however, it serves as little more than an introduction to the rest of the movement, although its general contours do seem to pervade a fair amount of the symphony’s material. Copland made progress at the MacDowell Colony but did not complete his work before he was again distracted by his teaching obligations at Tanglewood. “After Tanglewood, I stayed on in the Berkshires to work on the orchestration. It was a mad dash! The finishing touches were put on the score just before rehearsals were to start for the premiere, 18 October 1946. It was two years since I had started working on the piece in Mexico.”

THE MUSIC  Copland was often eager to write about his compositions. He prepared an extensive program note for the Boston Symphony’s premiere, some of which he condensed and revised for Copland: Since 1943:

In the program book for the first performance, I pointed out that the writing of a symphony inevitably brings with it the questions of what it is meant to express. As I wrote at the time, if I forced myself, I could invent an ideological basis for the Third Symphony. But if I did, I'd be bluffing—or at any rate, adding something ex post facto, something that might or might not be true but that played no role at the moment of creation.

The Third Symphony, my longest orchestral work (about forty minutes in duration), is scored for a big orchestra. It was composed in the general form of an arch, in which the central portion, that is the second-movement scherzo, is the most animated, and the final movement is an extended coda, presenting a broadened version of the opening material. Both the first and third themes in the first movement are referred to again in later movements. The second movement stays close to the normal symphonic procedure of a usual scherzo, while the third is freest of all in formal structure, built up sectionally with its various sections intended to emerge one from the other in continuous flow, somewhat in the manner of a closely knit series of variations. Some of the writing in the third movement is for very high strings and piccolo, with no brass except single horn and trumpet. It leads directly into the final and longest of the movements: the fourth is closest to a customary sonata-allegro form, although the recapitulation is replaced by an extended coda, presenting many ideas from the work, including the opening theme.

One aspect of the Third Symphony ought to be pointed out: it contains no folk or popular material. Any reference to either folk material or jazz in this work was purely unconscious. However, I do borrow from myself by using Fanfare for the Common Man in an expanded and reshaped form in the final movement. I used this opportunity to carry the Fanfare material further and to satisfy my desire to give the Third Symphony an affirmative tone. After all, it was a wartime piece—or more accurately, an end-of-war piece—intended to reflect the euphoric spirit of the country at the time. It is an ambitious score, often compared to Mahler and to Shostakovich and sometimes Prokofiev, particularly the second movement. As a longtime admirer of Mahler, some of my music may show his influence in a general way, but I was not aware of being directly influenced by other composers when writing the work.         

Copland’s Third Symphony was greeted warmly at its premiere, and it received the New York Music Critics Circle Prize as the best orchestral work by an American composer played during the 1946-47 season. Nonetheless, critics and listeners took their time coming to terms with it. Koussevitzky believed in it absolutely, and George Szell soon took it into his active repertory as well. Koussevitzky’s protégé-on-the-rise, Leonard Bernstein, also championed the work early on, although Copland’s feathers were considerably ruffled when Bernstein decided to cut eight measures from the finale without bothering to discuss the matter with the composer first. Copland eventually came to Bernstein’s point of view on the cut—which, in the end, is hardly an earth-shattering issue.

The last word goes to the composer: “The Third Symphony has come to be viewed as something of an anomaly, standing between my abstract works and the more accessible ballet and film music. The fourth-movement finale is perhaps the clearest example of this fusion of styles. I, myself, have thought of this piece as being closest in feeling to the Symphonic Ode, at least in intention: a full orchestral work for the concert hall that makes a serious statement. Personally, I am satisfied that my Third Symphony stands for what I wanted to say at the time. The musical ideas that came to me (or that I chose) were appropriate for the particular purpose of the work.”

James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, published in 2011 by Oxford University Press, is also available as an e-book and an Oxford paperback. 

Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic give a convincing, no-holds-barred rendition of this music (Deutsche Grammophon)

Online: Keeping Score: Copland and the American Sound, with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony (available from SFS Media at and on iTunes and Amazon)

Reading: Howard Pollack’s Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man promises to stand for some time as the standard life-and-works (Henry Holt)  |  Vivian Perlis’s two volumes of oral-history collaborations with the composer—Copland: 1900 Through 1942 and Copland: Since 1943—remain essential accounts of Copland’s career (St. Martin’s Griffin)

(March 2018)

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