Private Struggles, Public Outcomes: Mid-Century American Musical Negotiations: TMC Orchestra plays Barber, Copland, and Bernstein

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


The Cast of "Billy the Kid." Featuring Erick Hawkins, Eugene Loring, and Lew Christensen, center, 1938. Photo George Platt Lynes. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. © Estate of George Platt Lynes.
The Cast of "Billy the Kid." Featuring Erick Hawkins, Eugene Loring, and Lew Christensen, center, 1938. Photo George Platt Lynes. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. © Estate of George Platt Lynes.

Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra concert of American Music, July 6, 2011

Samuel Barber, Second Essay for Orchestra (1942)
Ken-David Masur conducting

Aaron Copland, Billy the Kid ballet suite (1938)
Robert Treviño conducting

Leonard Bernstein, Symphony no. 2, “The Age of Anxiety” (1948)
Miguel Harth-Bedoya conducting, Nolan Pearson piano


Tanglewood mounts a big spectacular every year on July 4th, with James Taylor, the Boston Pops, and fireworks. An equally appropriate, and perhaps more nuanced, way to acknowledge the role music plays in our national consciousness is to offer a program such as the one which occurred two days later in Ozawa Hall. While each work on this program counts as a classic, and the first two have undoubtedly been played in more than one pops concert, the conjunction of the three offers a thoughtful way to experience and appraise the work of three defining figures of 20th century American music.

It is tempting to juxtapose dates of composition with historical events: the depths of the Depression, the coming of war, and the adjustment to post-war circumstances can be read into the narratives of these works. This is reinforced by the larger context of the music of this period, and indeed there were many echoes between these composers and their contemporaries. The concert offered listeners the opportunity to assess three composers’ attempts to encompass and come to terms with those events in ways that are of their time, but remain relevant today.

About Barber’s powerful Second Essay, Virgil Thomson wrote (MLA Notes, 1946), “Since [the] theme…contains no stepwise material in it at all save for one declamatory grace-note at the end, is clearly bugle material, and since the whole piece is full of military references (the percussion imitates unquestionably bombardments and machine guns), I think one is justified in taking it for an essay about war.” And further on, “’Varieties of Military Experience’ might well have been a subtitle for the work.” After praising the workmanship and sophistication of the orchestration, Thomson concludes prophetically “…it makes one suspect that Barber might possess unawares a marked gift for the theater.” Barber did go on to expend considerable time and energy on two operas, both performed at the Metropolitan Opera (the second, Anthony and Cleopatra, was commissioned for the opening of the Lincoln Center house in 1966) but neither of the two have become standard repertory to date, in spite of a successful revival of Vanessa (the first) at the City Opera a few years ago. I think Virgil Thomson’s powers of divination regarding subject matter were spot on for the “Essay.” Four other war-time works by Barber have explicit connections to the military: “A Stopwatch, and an Ordnance Map,” to a text by Stephen Spender, for male chorus and three kettle drums (instruments featured very prominently in the “Second Essay”) from 1940; a Funeral March based on an Army Air Corps song from 1943; and his Second Symphony, which was commissioned by that same corps, in which he served from 1942 to 1945. While I differ with Thomson’s characterization of the first theme (from which the other two are derived) as “bugle music,” there is no denying the very conspicuous role played by the timpani in several parts of the score, and the structure is designed to move from the personal and introspective feelings of the quiet, flute-dominated opening to the fugal engagement of the full orchestra in the dramatic center and the brassy climax of the work, which must in some way point toward the actions and feelings of an individual and/or masses of people working his/their way through traumatic events toward a (hopefully) triumphant conclusion in the future. The boundary between private and public feelings seems to be a familiar area for Barber—his Adagio for Strings (actually the second movement of his String Quartet) is used to accompany both kinds of ceremonies. This impression is reinforced by his interest in opera, which often and powerfully juxtaposes these two, often dissonant levels of experience, even if he scored more unequivocal success with his songs, which definitively portray the private and intimate side of the spectrum. (See “Hermit Songs” for a masterful example.) If Barber knew he were going to war when he wrote this work (and he must have had at least a strong inkling) it becomes an eloquent record of his private feelings opening out to such public ones as mustering courage, determination, optimism, intent to engage in struggle, and finally, patriotism.

When it comes to the issue of relating private and public feelings, American music offers a rich patchwork of possibilities. The other two works on this program offered varied takes on the issue. The fact that all the composers were gay men (closeted or otherwise) may bear on the question of how much an artist can expose private experience using coded means, which music surely provides. Aaron Copland, who was notoriously skilful in avoiding references to his private life and associated emotions (even in his memoirs!) has indicated that music was the ideal medium for him since he could express anything that he wanted and listeners would never know the specifics behind the feelings. When contemplating the range of subjects that Copland’s music does explicitly address, it is clear that he was able to immerse himself in his material in a way that feels objective, clear-sighted, and completely devoted to subject-matter. In his songs, we hear a powerfully moving voice, that of the poet (most notably, Emily Dickinson) rather than of Aaron Copland himself. In his first Western ballet, we encounter the landscape, the dramatis personae, the jingoism and violence of the crowd settlers (however quaint and colorful they may be) juxtaposed with the fragile personal life of the criminal protagonist. It does not need to be said again that Copland gave American culture its Western (or more: American) sound, but we do need to say that this was the creative product of Copland’s imagination, camouflaged to sound like something inherent and authentic (much as Thomas Hardy’s writings seemed to emanate directly from rural southern England). The fact that the camouflage succeeded is testament to the strength of Copland’s particular artistry.

Billy the Kid may sound overly familiar to audiences—it is pops material, ear candy, music for TV commercials, ubiquitous background sound for our culture. But a concert performance affords us the chance to listen more attentively, and doing so reveals new worlds of felicities, new ideas about what is being expressed. Chief among these new worlds is the use of the orchestra: the gradations of sonority, only apparently rough and ready, are infinitely refined, every instrumental combination at every moment unique and beautifully worked out: something not heard before but completely appropriate to the musical moment. Copland’s orchestration reveals his French training, as subtle and resourceful as Ravel, but with its own sharp-cornered aesthetic. This aesthetic also informs the rhythm, and here is where the quality of a performance reveals itself most clearly. The meters are often irregular, with odd pauses and unpredictable accents, influenced by Stravinsky and by jazz, but again, uniquely adapted to Copland’s voice. The rhythms are precisely notated and difficult to do properly; they must be absolutely crisp and in many cases unexpressive, as if generated by a machine. This is difficult for performers who are drilled to play expressively, even in today’s post-romantic, post-modern world. Copland grew up at a time when the aesthetics of the machine were still excitingly modernistic, and he adopted it for selective pieces (see the 1930 Piano Variations) and for sections of this ballet such as “Street in a Frontier Town” and “Gun Battle;” the mechanical quality must be there to indicate the trivial vulgarity of the tunes in the former and the terrifying violence of the percussive weaponry in the latter. Copland performances have been watered down in the mistaken belief that the familiar icon of a friendly, smiling dean of American composers wrote friendly, smiling music. Of course he could; the opening of the Clarinet Concerto is one of those incredibly beautiful, peacefully unwinding melodies that go on and on, like the Satie “Gymnopédies” or the slow movement of Ravel’s Concerto in G. But except for the “Prairie Night,” section, Copland had other agendas for this ballet, and his ‘glorification’ of the West is anything but. Reading beneath the surface reveals the morally mixed picture presented by the historical record along with the complex layers of mythology generated by settlers to legitimize their claim to the American narrative. It is the private world of Billy the outlaw, not that of Aaron the gay, leftist, Jewish composer, that is in conflict with the American social juggernaut.

To go from Copland to Bernstein is to move from the public and objective to the intensely personal verging on the megalomaniacal. I have long been critical of Bernstein’s “serious” compositions, but not his Broadway shows, ballets, or film scores. Works like Symphony no. 3, “Kaddish,” and “Mass,” can seem embarrassingly self-regarding, or sentimental and emotionally self-indulgent; and I have felt that Bernstein was over-valued as a “serious” American composer. Perhaps Lennie let his spectacular success and fame lead him to believe that he was the artist-hero anointed to resolve the contradictions of modernity, to find the way out of the spiritual conundrums of the time. But recently I have rediscovered his earlier works, particularly his first two symphonies, and after hearing the second, subtitled “The Age of Anxiety,” I am ready to concede that at least in this composition he showed the brilliance and originality to merit his position in the American pantheon. Based on the book-length W. H. Auden poem of the same name that was published in 1947, Bernstein’s program is ambitious: to capture the complex, confused consciousness of post-war American (or New York) society by focusing on four representative individuals, with their representative forms of Angst to be played out in a bout of all-night drinking, smoking, compulsive talking, and sexual activity (very much like the favorite activities of the composer himself). While the program could have inspired self-indulgence, in fact Bernstein proceeds in a very disciplined manner. He devises a symphonic structure of utter originality, owing little to classical or romantic models, but rather based on the structure of Auden’s poem itself. It is organized in two large “Parts” (in that way a bit like Mahler), each part containing three connected movements, some of which subdivide further, particularly the two variation movements from Part I called “The Seven Ages” (variations 1-7) and “The Seven Stages” (variations 8-14). Avoiding the danger of fragmentation, Bernstein successfully develops a large arc of developmental and dramatic tension that overrides the sectional organization; my guess is that most listeners were not keeping track of the divisions between these variations. In this respect, there is a precedent in the chaconne-form final movement of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, to which this work bears no further resemblance.

Bernstein’s style can be described as a mixture of his own rather sweet and straightforward lyricism (which makes his show-tunes so memorable) along with an eclectic mix of influences from his American colleagues, for whose music he was such a persuasive advocate as conductor. Especially in his use of strict forms I hear the influence of the older contemporary William Schuman (also a voice of urban experience); in the evolutionary nature of the sectional form, there are hints of Roy Harris; and in the rhythms and orchestration, the influence of Copland is apparent. In fact, the Epilogue, which moves from tragic to triumphal rhetoric, is built on a falling fourth, a figure that comes directly from the opening of Copland’s epic Third Symphony whose premier Bernstein had conducted two years before beginning the composition of his own work. But the most conspicuous influence, and one which adds great strength and distinction to this work, is that of jazz. While many older American composers in the 1920’s sought to “Americanize” their idiom by assimilating jazz elements (Copland’s Piano Concerto for example), some of those efforts came to seem a bit quaint or even slightly condescending. (This statement excludes Gershwin, who aspired to classical forms the way Bernstein aspired to jazz. It also exclude the French, particularly Milhaud and Ravel, who seem to have absorbed jazz influences earlier and more gracefully, but without the hard-edged angularity that appealed to the Americans.) New forms of jazz, particularly be-bop, continued to feed influences to American innovators after World War II, and that relationship persists to the present. In Bernstein’s work, the cool, hip flavors of post-war jazz are perfectly suited to cut the sweetness of his lyricism. In “The Age of Anxiety,” Bernstein’s personal stand-in is a solo piano that Jay Goodwin’s program notes describe as providing “…a representation of his own personal identification with the poem. ‘In this sense [Bernstein himself wrote], the pianist provides an almost autobiographical mirror in which he sees himself, analytically in the modern ambiance.… The work is therefore no concerto in the virtuosic sense.’” Not virtuosic, but very challenging nonetheless. My earlier, anti-Bernstein voice would have said, “Bernstein narcissistically indulging in self-contemplation,” but in fact there is a genuine dialogue between the larger social forces represented by the orchestra and the questioning or questing meditations of the piano, one that is played out through the complexities of the formal architecture. The most tricky section is also the jazziest, and perhaps the most memorable: the second movement of Part II, “Masques.” Here, a solo double bass comes forward to join the piano center-stage in a be-bop jam session of great momentum and dizzying frenzy. But unlike a similar section in Rodion Shchedrin’s Piano Concerto no. 2 (1966), this is not an act of stylistic ventriloquism; it is pure Bernstein and it acts as a perfect Dionysian climax to the symphonic argument, with no hint of self-indulgence. It’s a great and memorable moment, but it also works as a great culmination of the preceding material.

The three conductors who presented these works offered a variety of strengths and weaknesses, with the brilliant Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra responding to each in very different ways. Ken-David Masur led an assured, eloquent reading of Barber’s work, controlling the pace, flow, and balance so as to lead securely through the fugal complexities to the climactic passage with full dramatic conviction and textural clarity. The playing was appropriately characterful and accomplished. Less successful was the reading of the Copland. Robert Treviño’s energetic direction indulged in point-making, over-emphasis, and other manipulations that undermined the objective strength of this score, rounded off its edges, and in some cases, sentimentalized; in the process, the character of the string-writing was neglected, and the playing had a dull, generalized quality that came from lack of attention to the individual character of each section. Even worse, the rhythms felt manipulated by the feelings of the conductor, rather than unfolding inexorably; the intimations of unavoidable tragedy were thereby neutralized. The brass and percussion work was of higher quality, since these instruments are less prone to sentimentality and more naturally attentive to rhythmic articulation. But perhaps owing to the performers responding to its iconic status rather than its essence, this great score made less impact than its companions.

The master-conductor of the evening was Miguel Harth-Bedoya, whose work I had not heard before. But it was apparent from the first notes of the Bernstein, a dialogue for two clarinets, that a different order of care and attention was being applied by the players in response to their leader. Under his direction, the colors and textures of this rich score emerged as just plain beautiful; there was a quality of listening (along with the playing) that was palpable, and raised the stakes on the performance beyond what had been heard earlier. The tricky piano part was well-handled by soloist Nolan Pearson, but it took a while for conductor and pianist to settle in with each other; they sometimes seemed in different worlds until the third section (“The Seven Stages”) of Part I, where the incisive rhythms of the passacaglia (variation VIII) pulled the ensemble tightly together. From there on, the performance “cooked” all the way to the end.

I’d like to conclude on a note of thanks and a suggestion to the programmers at Tanglewood. While Bernstein and Copland are pillars of the institution, there is still a great deal of their and their contemporaries’ music that deserves to be better known by the public. A program of American music is a significant way in which to get to know it. This is not said out of any misplaced chauvinism, but rather, out of an appreciation for the powerful context this provides. Like French music in the 17th century, American music of the ‘30’s and ‘40’s was a self-conscious stylistic movement, fostered by figures such as Nadia Boulanger and Serge Koussevitzky, one that produced an important body of compositions by a spectrum of composers who exercised a network of mutual influences. Much of this music is neglected today (not just other works by Copland but, for example, the entire oeuvre of Bernstein’s mentor Walter Piston who had such a close relationship with the Boston Symphony) but would make very good material for programs of great popular appeal, possibly combined with more recent works by composers such as John Adams. (How about programming Piston’s Violin Concerto no. 1 instead of Bruch next time around?) I hope that this program was not just a pious homage to the past, but a dynamic model for the future. The skill and enthusiasm of the young musicians would augur well for that.

1 thought on “Private Struggles, Public Outcomes: Mid-Century American Musical Negotiations: TMC Orchestra plays Barber, Copland, and Bernstein

  1. A favorite part of Bernstein”s “Age of Anxiety” is the barely audible clarinet opening. This is exactly how a taxi horn sounds at a great distance at 3AM in New York, high up in an apartment building, when it is the only sound there is. The piece does hold together well on fairly simple terms.

Comments are closed.

WP2Social Auto Publish Powered By :