Copland and the Cold War

September 6, 2017 by Joe Horowitz

PostClassical Ensemble’s most recent WWFM “PostClassical” radio show is “Copland and the Cold War” – aired last Friday and now archived.

Our two-hour program includes Aaron Copland’s prize-winning New Masses workers’ song “Into the Streets, May First” as well as a re-enactment of Copland’s 1953 grilling by Senator Joseph McCarthy starring myself and Bill McGlaughlin.

And – sampling one of PostClassical Ensemble’s three Naxos DVDs presenting classic 1930s films with newly recorded soundtracks — we audition and discuss Copland’s least-known important score: his music for the classical 1939 documentary The City. Scripted by Lewis Mumford, this film – far better known to film-makers than to musicians – advocates government-built “new towns.” Its images of happy workers remind my wife – a native of Communist Hungary – of the propaganda films she knew as a child.

How far did Copland migrate to the left in the 1930s? Citing Howard Pollack’s biography, I read a couple of 1934 letters in which Copland excitedly described his participation in Communist Party functions among Minnesota farmers:

“It’s one thing to talk revolution . . . but to preach it from the streets out loud — well, I made my speech and now I’ll never be the same. Now when we go to town, there are friendly nobs from sympathizers. Farmers come up and talk as one red to another. One feels very much at home, not at all like a mere summer boarder.”

This Cold War chapter concludes a fascinating and at times chilling three-part compositional odyssey charted by “the dean of American composers.” He began as a high modernist in 1930 with his lean, hard, and dissonant Piano Variations – a breakthrough in American music. Then, spurred by Mexico and the Depression, he turned himself into a populist and composed the ballets by which we know him best. It was during the beginning of this period that he addressed Communist farmers, scored The City, and won a New Masses contest for the best workers’ song.

These political adventures returned to haunt Copland in the fifties – during which decade he was bluntly interrogated by McCarthy and observed by the FBI (we now know that the switchboard agent at Tanglewood Festival was an informant). His Lincoln Portrait was dropped by from the Eisenhower inauguration following protests from Republicans in Congress who marked him as a former fellow traveler or worse. Copland now turned his back on the “new audience” he had once wooed, returning to his modernist roots in a series of non-tonal compositions beginning with the bleak Piano Quartet of 1950.

The result is a veritable American fable – suggesting, among other things, that the US is less hospitable to political artists than was the Mexico of Diego Rivera, from which Copland drew instruction. Copland’s Mexican colleague Carlos Chavez at various times conducted Mexico’s first permanent orchestra, ran the National Conservatory of Music, and directed the National Institute of Fine Arts.

Looking back at his Mexican visits of the 1930s, and doubtless reflecting upon the American prominence and influence of such outsiders as Arturo Toscanini, Copland said: “I was a little envious of the opportunity composers have to serve their country in a musical way. When one has done that, one can compose with real joy. Here in the U.S. A. we composers have no possibility of directing the musical affairs of the nation – on the contrary, I have the impression that more and more we are working in a vacuum.”

At the close of our two-hour WWFM radio show, the three co-hosts had (as usual) different perspectives on the topic at hand. Quoting Roger Sessions’ quip that “Aaron is a better composer than he thinks he is,” I opined that the Piano Variations were Copland’s highest achievement and that his populism was “synthetic.”

PCE Music Director Angel Gil-Ordonez expressed admiration for Copland’s non-tonal valedictory, the Piano Fantasy (1957). Of the populist Copland, the best Angel could do was  “He really tried.”

Bill McGlaughlin was aroused by our remarks to passionately defend the entirety of Copland’s oeuvre. From his perspective, Angel and I fail to appreciate the social and political forces impinging on Aaron Copland’s aesthetic vicissitudes — “So you better get over it, Jack.”

The broadcast draws on two PostClassical Ensemble programs: “Copland and the Cold War” (including “Into the Streets,” the McCarthy re-enactment, and Copland piano works in masterly performances by Benjamin Pasternack); and “The City,” presenting the 1939 film with live orchestra. The musical content of both these concerts are preserved on the Naxos recordings we sampled.

Our previous “PostClassical” broadcasts – all archived – are “Are Orchestras Really ‘Better than Ever?’”, a Lou Harrison Centenary celebration, and “Dvorak and Hiawatha.” Coming up next, on 20: “The Most Under-Rated Twentieth Century American Composer” – a tribute to Bernard Herrmann.

COPLAND AND THE COLD WAR

 

LISTENING GUIDE

PART I – Copland the modernist turns populist

6:30 – Copland the wild man: Piano Variations (1930), performed by Benjamin Pasternack on Naxos

22:00 – Copland speaks at a Communist picnic in Minnesota (1934)

28:00 –  “Into the Streets” (1934), Copland’s prize-winning workers’ song for The New Masses

32:00 – Copland becomes a film composer: The City (1939), espousing government-funded “new towns” with happy workers. From PCE’s Naxos DVD.

52:00 – The famous lunch counter scene from The City, in which Copland prefigures Philip Glass

59:00  — “Sunday Traffic” from The City

PART II – Copland the populist returns to modernism

3:00 – Copland in Hollywood: The Red Pony

11:30 – Copland is interrogated by Senator Joseph McCarthy (1953)

18:00 – Giving up on the “new audience” he once courted, Copland composes a non-tonal valedictory: The Piano Fantasy (1957), performed by Benjamin Pasternack on Naxos