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About this Piece

Composed: 1924
Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes (2nd = 2nd piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tambourine, wood block, xylophone), 2 harps, celesta, strings, and organ

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: May 6, 2005, Michael Christie conducting, with soloist Mary Preston

In the first months of 1924, Copland was near the end of his three-year stint studying in Paris, mainly with the famous master mentor Nadia Boulanger. One day they saw an announcement that Serge Koussevitzky would be guest conducting the Boston Symphony the following season. Boulanger immediately decided that they should call on Koussevitzky and discuss his plans. At the conductor’s home, Copland played through one of his scores at the piano (with Prokofiev, who was also visiting, looking over his shoulder). Koussevitzky promised to conduct the work in Boston and, knowing that Boulanger planned to be in New York at the invitation of Walter Damrosch, proposed that she should also appear with the Boston Symphony as the organ soloist in a new piece by Copland.

“‘You vill write an organ concerto, Mademoiselle Boulanger vill play it, and I vill conduct!’ Koussevitzky pronounced in no uncertain terms,” Copland recalled in the autobiography he wrote with Vivian Perlis. “Mademoiselle agreed, but when we left, I exclaimed, ‘Do you really think I can do it?’ (I had never heard a note of my own orchestration or written anything for the organ. Moreover, the organ was not a favorite instrument of mine.) She pointed her finger at me. ‘You can do it.’ And when Mademoiselle said, ‘You can do it,’ that was the end of the discussion.”

That may have settled Copland’s commitment to the project, but the discussions were really just beginning. Work on the piece – variously called a concerto, a sinfonietta, and a symphony – went slowly once Copland was back in the United States and trying to find ways to support himself. Boulanger kept the pressure on the young composer with a stream of advice and requests for updates. Once she got the completed score she was thrilled, but had reservations about the frantic pace of the big Scherzo middle movement and proposed an alternative ending. “I accepted some of her suggestions, but decided to take my chances with the ending and with the tempo of the Scherzo,” Copland wrote.

The Symphony for Organ and Orchestra is cast in a novel, three-movement form, loosely linked by a recurring theme – a short, meditative prelude; a big, burly scherzo suggestive of the Stravinsky that Copland discovered in Paris; and a finale featuring a menacing march. “The first big climax is in the Scherzo, a movement designed to maintain a strong drive all the way through,” Copland wrote. “This second movement interested Boulanger and Koussevitzky most, because of its rhythmic experimentation, irregular note groupings, and uneven accents. The Scherzo was my idea of what could be done to adapt the raw material of jazz. I was not yet using jazz openly and directly; nonetheless, if you listen to the Scherzo even now, you hear rhythms that would not have been there if I had not been born and raised in Brooklyn.”

Reviews of the new work in New York and Boston were mixed, but organists were happy to champion it. For the practical consideration of getting performances in concert halls without an organ, Copland subsequently revised the scoring as his Symphony No. 1 (which Ernest Ansermet premiered in Berlin in 1931).

— John Henken