Music Monday: Copland: Dance Symphony

Close readers of my blog could probably tell you a great deal about my musical influences without ever hearing a note of my music. My overwhelming feelings about Britten are well documented, as are more than a few thoughts about Stravinsky and Messiaen. But there are also people who live deep in the bones of my musical outlook that I haven't written much about. Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is one of them.

One can find a great deal of information about pretty much any aspect of Copland's life with only the most cursory of searches, and this is hardly surprising given his stature and influence in twentieth-century American musical life. Justifiably or not, he became the face of American concert music, and the go-to "Americana" soundscape — found in countless political ads and movies about the West — is essentially an imitation of his more popular stylistic elements. In addition to erasing many of his sources, which include, among other things, jazzy elements lifted from black artists and other impulses pilfered from Mexican folk traditions, this popularity has often resulted in a fraught relationship with the composer's own life and views: He was blacklisted for Communist associations* during the Red Scare of the 1950s (tho by that point, he had enough stature that this didn't destroy his career); when the US Army band recorded a monumental boxed set of his works in the early 2000s, they included a lengthy and detailed biographical sketch including a section on how being an outsider as both a Jewish person and a Communist (sympathizer) affected his life — but completely and deliberately ignored the fact that he was gay. For all that his music (or at least some of it; Connotations is unlikely to come soon to a Pops orchestra near you) has eagerly been made synonymous with American patriotism, his personhood resists such easy assimilation.

Prior to his trip to Mexico (and prior to his most significant populist shift in the Great Depression), Copland went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, and it was shortly after returning that his career really began to take off. One of the first things he wrote on his return was the ballet Grohg, loosely based on the film Nosferatu. The ballet itself was never produced, but some time later, in 1925, Copland was running out of time on a tight deadline and, instead of rushing to write something new, snatched a few bits from Grohg and stitched them together into a work he called his Dance Symphony. (Copland wrote at least five things called symphonies, even tho he numbered his last one as his third. It's . . . complicated.)

Leaving aside such numerological difficulties, the Dance Symphony is an absolute jewel, ranging from twitchy and frenetic to calm and beguiling. The first movement, "Dance of the Adolescent" opens in the later mood, with distant trumpets floating on a sea of unquiet strings. But then a bassoon gets ahold of things and it's off to the races with a quiet dancing music that picks up energy without ever losing an air of hushed mystery. This leads directly into the "Dance of the Girl who Moves as if in a Dream", which builds and builds ind disquietude until a shattering climax that almost seems to prefigure the first movement of Dmitri Shostakovich's charged seventh symphony (or perhaps the transformation thereof in his fifteenth).

And then there's the finale, the "Dance of Mockery". In keeping with the "wow, I really didn't leave enough time for this deadline" genesis of the piece, the first theme of this movement makes me think of nothing so much as a college student twitchy and on edge from chugging an unholy amount of caffeine to compensate for pulling yet another all-nighter. There is a quieter interlude towards the center with gently swooping violins, but it doesn't last, and the movement goes out with an exuberant rhythmic cacophony of layered, glittering textures.

*While Copland was a pretty ardent Communist during the Great Depression, by the 1950s, his awareness of the atrocities happening in Stalin's Russia led him to distance himself from the ideology and cut relations with many of the groups he was formerly associated with.