Thursday, January 06, 2005

Cosmo Copland Eschews Symphonies?

Anyone else just love having Grove Online? I dreamed about this when I was a graduate student, now it has happened. I’ve been surfing through articles on a number of topics and came upon something about a month ago that has stuck with me like a bad cold and I’m ready to purge myself of it. This is from the article on the Symphony by Stephen Walsh:

“…Copland remained the most cosmopolitan, and that is perhaps precisely why he wrote the fewest symphonies. The Third (1944–6) is an imposing work of epic-romantic proportions, but the so-called ‘Short’ Symphony (no.2, 1932–3) is by a long way the more interesting: a rather anti-heroic work that draws attention to small symphonic processes and eschews rhetoric.”

I just loved this little snippet because I found it so completely absurd. Mentioning the Third Symphony but then really telling you about that wonderful, underappreciated masterpiece, The Second. Nice of the author to do that for you, huh? I mean everyone knows the big titan, but listen to the better little gem. However, this is a little like mentioning the Queen Mary II and then talking about a “better built” little sailboat. I’ve heard performances of these works and it isn’t that one is big and the other is small, one rhetorical and the other concise. One is grand and overwhelming, possibly the best symphony ever written by an American and the other is a footnote. I still like the ‘Short’ Symphony even if it is a little too much work for what you get out of it. The Third is even more difficult, but wow! I challenge readers to compare these two works back to back and then tell me that you agree with the Grove article that the Second is “by a long way the more interesting.” Interesting, to me, can also mean big, imposing, and provocative like The Third. In the decade between these two pieces, Copland clearly amassed the tools to write a titanic work that dwarfs its predecessor.

This type of flourish might be effective in describing the symphonies of Stravinsky (Three Movements, in C, and Psalms) because the argument can be made that by self enforced limitation and constraints, Stravinsky made better-crafted works than, say, the early ballets. I’m not sure that I would agree with that, but I wouldn’t protest such an argument very vigorously either. With Copland, such thinking is utter poppycock.

Thinking of Stravinsky, possibly the most cosmopolitan of composers from the past century, who wrote those three ‘kind of’ symphonies, what do we make of the first sentence from the quote. Copland wrote few symphonies because he was cosmopolitan? The choice to write symphonies is only a pejoratively provincial one? Are you getting the sense that Walsh has an ax to grind? The Great American Symphony (GAS), so far, as an archetype, has been big and muscular. To Walsh, I say, “deal with it.”

In other posts, I want to deal with the motives of critics like Walsh. I think there are very specific root causes for the prevalence of this branch of anti-populist music criticism.

Walsh, Stephen, “Symphony,” Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 6 January 2005),


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I should like to comment further on this VERY provocative post, but for now let me just say POPPYCOCK POPPYCOCK POPPYCOCK!!!! Yessssss

will be back...

10:02 PM  
Blogger Marcus Maroney said...

You forgot to mention Stravinsky's early Symphony in Eb :) As for the Copland, I think it works much better in its Sextet version, where the textures become much clearer. I definitely agree that, in its orchestral guise, it pales next to the great Third.

10:22 PM  

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