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A funny thing about Aaron Copland’s buoyant, invigoratingly open-air piece, An Outdoor Overture: it was written in 1938 for performance in the indoor auditorium of the High School of Music and Art in New York City. The work owes its existence to a request from the school’s orchestra director, Alexander Richter, for a composition to begin the institution’s long-term plan to concentrate on “American music for American Youth.” And who better to inaugurate such a campaign than an American composer who had so recently affected a radical and crucial stylistic change in his music, a change from austerity and dissonance into folkish simplicity? After beginning with the south-of-the-border folkishness of El Salón Mexico in 1936, Copland settled creatively within the continental U.S. for a high school opera, The Second Hurricane in 1937, and followed this with the present work, and in the same year – 1938 – the first of the Americana ballets, Billy the Kid.
It is interesting to observe that, although
An Outdoor Overture
could be considered a kind of warm-up for the extended ballets that followed (although he interrupted work on Billy the Kid to write it) it still emerged as a fully-formed essay in the composer’s new style. The melodic materials are the essence of simplicity, beginning with a main theme that proceeds from a descending C-major triad and contains plenty of straight-out scales, onto a rousing march tune that almost slips into Camptown Races – strangely enough with a slight Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev accent – and then to a lyric idea sung first by a flute.
In composing the piece, Copland kept in mind that, although he was writing for a high school orchestra of at least near-professional capability, he must still hold careful rein on the over-all difficulties. But neither did he underestimate the expertise of the student players and in devising the music in his typically syncopated, brilliant manner, he provided them, and professional orchestras, with an attractive bit of Coplandiana.
— Orrin Howard