Copland started his Third Symphony, in 1944, in the Mexican village of Tepotzlan. Copland's musical style had veered dramatically during the 1930s, from symphonic jazz to neoclassicism and a semi-severe modernism. He drew on many popular and vernacular sources, literary as well as musical.
In the Third Symphony, he brought it all together into a sort of abstract Americana, an evocation of time and place without recourse to folk material, in the characteristic open Copland sound that powerfully mingles confidence and yearning. He was working on a commission from conductor Serge Koussevitzky, and the knowledge that the work would be dedicated to the memory of Koussevitzky's wife Natalie certainly influenced the lyric cast of the Symphony. It was completed in 1946 at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire and premiered by Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony in October that year. The conductor had no reservations about what Copland supplied, labeling it "the greatest American symphony - it goes from the heart to the heart" (paraphrasing Beethoven).
The lyricism in the first movement is of the stately sort, expansive and uncluttered. "The themes - three in number - are plainly stated: the first in strings at the very start without introduction; the second, in a related mood, in violas and oboes; the third, of a bolder nature, in trombones and horns," Copland wrote. That bolder material is worked up into a powerful climax, then the three themes are recapitulated into an even mightier outburst, followed by an ethereal little coda.
The second movement is a forthright, jovial scherzo, complete with contrasting trio section and return of the opening material. It begins with a festive brass explosion and moves into a playful romp, with a lilting pastoral dance for the trio section.
The third movement, Copland said, "is the freest of all in formal structure. Although it is built sectionally, the various sections are intended to emerge one from the other in continuous flow, somewhat in the manner of a closely knit series of variations." A spare introduction based on the brass theme from the first movement gives this Andantino quasi allegretto an almost elegiac cast, but the variations themselves slither through a wide range of moods.
The "continuous flow" of the movement extends even into the finale, which has its own introduction, based on Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man. In the dark days of 1942, conductor Eugene Goossens commissioned 18 patriotic fanfares for the Cincinnati Symphony, intended to inspire confidence and national unity. Copland's heroic music for brass and percussion became probably his best-known piece, and he used it here to summon a full measure of optimism and grandeur. It floats in from the previous movement, however, in flutes and clarinets, before bursting open in its full glory, as if all of the Symphony's noble aspirations were concentrated in the Fanfare's rising motives. The fourth movement proper has its own themes - developed in the classical argument of sonata form - and closes with a magnificent, exhilarating gumbo of themes, merging its main theme with the opening of the first movement and bits of the Fanfare.
- John Henken is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Director of Publications.