Copland: “The Dodger” and “The Golden Willow Tree,” from Old American Songs


BORN: November 14, 1900. Brooklyn, NY

DIED: December 2, 1990. Peekskill, NY

COMPOSED: (“The Dodger”) 1950, orchestrated 1954; 1952, (“The Golden Willow Tree”) orchestrated 1957

WORLD PREMIERE: (“The Dodger”) January 7, 1955. Baritone William Warfield was soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Alfred Wallenstein. (“The Golden Willow Tree”) May 25, 1958. Mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry was soloist at the Ojai Festival with the composer conducting

INSTRUMENTATION: Flute (doubling piccolo), oboe, 2 clarinets, bassoon, 2 horns, trumpet, trombone, harp, and strings

DURATION: ("The Dodger") About 2 mins. ("The Golden Willow Tree") About 3 mins

Copland was fascinated by the rich diversity of American popular music and took his inspiration from jazz, blues, cowboy songs, hymns. He was also able to absorb this material so completely and feed it through the forge of his own genius that he created music that sounds like original folk material (as in the 1944 Appalachian Spring, for example). He had begun his career writing in a more severe style but by 1941 he felt, “that it was worth the effort to see if I couldn't say what I had to say in the simplest possible terms.” Ten years later, he said that "The conviction grew inside me that the two things that seemed always to have been separate in America—music and the life about me—must be made to touch. This desire to make the music I wanted to write come out of the life I had lived in America became a preoccupation of mine…”

If Copland went to original source material for his works of Americana (and also for his works of Latin Americana), he also took pleasure in the sources themselves. In 1950, he arranged a group of five Old American Songs for voice and piano. His settings of these tunes proved so popular that, two years later, he arranged five more songs from our country’s past. “The Dodger” is a political song from the 1894 presidential campaign and appeared in the first set. “The Golden Willow Tree,” a banjo piece from early in the twentieth century, was one of the songs in the second set.—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.

(September 2019)