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Though his earliest musical influences were certainly eclectic, Aaron Copland’s pedigree as a “serious” composer was impeccable. He studied with Rubin Goldmark from 1917-21, one of New York City’s most eminent composition teachers and the first to head the famed Juilliard School’s theory and composition department. In June of 1921, Copland sailed to Paris with the intention of studying at a new conservatory at Fontainebleau, near Paris. Within a few months, however, he had abandoned the conservatory curriculum and was studying privately in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, perhaps the most important composition teacher of the 20th century.
Under Boulanger’s tutelage, Copland studied the works of J.S. Bach and his predecessors; he also came into steady contact with the contemporary music of the day. Boulanger’s studio, Paris, and indeed all of Europe, became his new living room and he drank it in, from performances of Renaissance vocal music to the latest premieres of new works, including even the most daring of the modern composers who preached the total “emancipation of dissonance.” It was from this musical stew that the young composer burst on the international music scene in the 1920s.
One of a number of composers honored by commissions from the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) to honor their 50th anniversary, Copland produced the Symphonic Ode, his first big work solely for orchestra. In some ways it is one of his least characteristic works, certainly among the composer’s most deliberately in-your-face compositions. In the words of American composer John Adams, the young Copland was “in the minds of the polite audiences of the BSO… a hooligan.” Interestingly, it is also one of the few works which Copland revised in any significant way – for the 75th anniversary of the BSO. The 1955 revision reduced the size of the orchestra and softened the Ode’s edgy attitude just a bit.
Writers, musicians, and scholars have long been intrigued by the Symphonic Ode, a kind of “musical cityscape” or “urban tone poem.” Is it specifically an ode to anything, say to the city of New York? Copland has answered that question for us: “The title Symphonic Ode is not meant to imply connection with a literary idea,” wrote the composer. “It is not an ode to anything in particular, but rather a spirit that is to be found in the music itself.”
The Ode begins with a dark brass statement, followed by a very brief motive in the strings that is simultaneously bluesy, jazzy, and faintly Eastern European Jewish. These ideas become almost the warp and weave of the entire piece, a virtual New York City motive wending its way through modifications and variations throughout this continuous, five-section work.
The outer sections are musically akin to the hustle and bustle of the Big City, while the more serene inner section bring to mind the surreal stillness of an urban landscape at 3 a.m. The appealing Copland fingerprint is always present: the eclecticism, an ever-present exuberance and rhythmic verve, and as composer Adams has noted, a “lean, spare, clean sense of space.”
–Notes by Dave Kopplin