Copland Symphony no. 2, ‘Short Symphony’

performed by the St. Louis Symphony under Leonard Slatkin, or below by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

(cover image by Dawid Zawiła)

The dialectic of this music, that is to say, its movement, the way each and every note comes out from the other as the only natural and logical possible one, is simply unprecedented in the whole history of music. The work as a whole, I mean to say in its entirety, is an organism … there is the real thing, here is our music, here is my music, the music of my time, of my taste…

Carlos Chávez, dedicatee of the work and conductor of the premiere
as quoted on Butterworth pp. 52-53

Here he is! Finally, the man you’ve all (probably) been waiting for.

America’s most famous composer, maybe.

And it’s not Appalachian Spring, or Rodeo, or the third symphony, or Fanfare for the Common Man. It’s the second symphony. In fact, Joseph Stevenson, writing at AllMusic, says that “This is not the broad and expansive Copland of Billy the Kid or Appallachian [sic] Spring.”

That being said, most people, even if they haven’t heard this work before, would be able to recognize it as being of Copland’s pen. It has a bubbly, vivacious springiness to its rhythms, that ‘sound’ that later, mostly because of Copland, came to be identified as quintessentially American. (He was apparently the first American student of Nadia Boulanger.) It was exactly this intricate rhythmic nature that made the Boston Symphony reject the work, meaning the premiere was performed by Carlos Chávez in Mexico City on November 23, 1934. On page 53 of The American Symphony, Butterworth says the work likely appealed to Chavez since “[his] own works often explore rhythmic ideas.” Butterworth also tells us that it took until 1944 for the work to receive a performance in the composer’s homeland, perhaps calling into question how truly ‘American’ this sound was if it was difficult to get a footing there.

The work is ‘short’ not only in duration, but stature, lacking trombones and any percussion. This smaller scale, coupled with its complexity and the lack of attention it was getting in its symphonic form meant that in 1937, the composer adapted the work for a sextet (string quartet, clarinet, and piano). That was the only score I could get my hands on, so I read that and listened to the symphonic version, which gave some insight into how the composer went about reducing the work.

Slatkin’s recording comes in at less than 15 minutes, the first movement being the shortest of the three. It’s marked ‘incisivo’, and is certainly crisp. The music is bubbly, plalyfully rhythmic, but also at turns seems almost ominous in still(er) moments here and there. There’s a ton of color in his writing, certainly, and while it isn’t as wild and maniacal as, say, Stravinsky, one wonders if he couldn’t be coined ‘the American-born Stravinsky’ or something for the rhythmic complexity and color he’s generated here.

Interestingly, as Butterworth points out, “the opening 82 bars are entirely in unison except for the punctuating chords and a brief passage of two-part counterpoint near the beginning.” We get a sense that dots are being laid down, like the points in a Lite-Brite that will ultimately reveal some kind of picture. Butterworth says that “The germ of this movement lies in the first two bars. All the melodic figures that appear in the rest of the movement are derived from this short figure.” In fact, he goes so far as to say that the “sequence of notes is ‘serial’ in character, comprising a nine-note row.” Who knew?!

The second movement, connected to the first without pause, is very different from the angular, bouncy first. We could use the stillness, really, and it feels like we have a chance to savor the music in broader swathes than just in splashes and points, hence the marking ‘espressivo’. It’s even melancholy in some places, with beautiful, poignant writing that’s transparent and sensitive.

The finale, though, returns to the excited bounce of the opening, although it is not a true recapitulation or restatement. It’s bouncy and angular, but there is a bit of the broadness of the second movement, leading Butterworth to quote Chávez’s enthusiasm for the compact connectedness of the work.

Butterworth says:

… its craftsmanship and logic produce increasing admiration on repeated hearings. As an abstract composition, it is a masterpiece of compact invention. The economy of material and relevance of all the melodic and rhythmical development typify the composer’s thought process.”

Interestingly, Stevenson, back at AllMusic, describes the work as ‘cerebral’ in its “motive development and rhythmic innovations,” but this is as good an example as any that a listener doesn’t have to identify those connections and developments to enjoy the piece. It has its surface charms, or strengths, or whatever you want to call it, and while the work is far from my favorite in this series, it’s certainly well crafted.

The average listener may not think of a work like this as ‘cerebral’ or having any kind of ‘serial’ tendencies, even if it isn’t fully 12-tone, but there they are. We may be a bit more inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt, hear charms and gems in it than dismiss it for being complicated or challenging, but can we have the same approach to Webern or Boulez? That’s a discussion for another time, but I’d argue that Thompson’s second symphony is just as American-sounding as this. There’s certainly more room in the concert hall, recording archive, and music library for American composers than only Copland as a representative. I certainly wasn’t going to skip over him, though.

There are two more outstanding American composers coming up this week, both of whom wrote quite a large number of symphonies, so do stay tuned for one of each of them, and thank you for reading.

(the full citation for the quote above that opens this work is as follows:
Reprinted in Letters of Composers, ed. Gertrude Norman and Miriam Lubell Shrifte (1979) Greenwood Press:  Westport, Connecticut, pp. 393-4)


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