Concerto for Clarinet

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            Aaron Copland is generally considered America’s greatest composer.  That is, it is he, through his compositions and through his essays, books, lectures, and other thoughts on music, who has done more than any other individual to establish a corpus of “serious” music in this country that has largely defined an “American” style.  He lived a long life; influenced generations of young composers; advanced the cause of art music in this country; and composed music that has delighted millions in the audiences of ballet, chamber music, symphonic music, radio, television, and the movies.  The son of Jewish immigrants, he lived for most of his life in New York City—or close by—but assimilated so much of the disparate elements of our culture that he came to be considered as representative of all of it.  In his music one finds jazz, ethnic, western, folk, intellectual, and populist elements and references—and much more: Cuban, Mexican, and European Continental.  But his wide-ranging intellect easily synthesized it all into an inimitable style (or small group of stylistic voices) with which his music spoke with a clear and unified expression. 

            His greatest musical influence was undoubtedly the grande dame of teachers, Mme. Nadia Boulanger, with whom he studied in Paris during the early 1920s.   Teacher of generations of distinguished performers and composers, she counted Copland as her greatest pupil.   Of course, while spending those years in Paris—along with the so-called “lost” generation (Copland was assuredly not part of it)—he was exposed to a wealth of musical styles and composers.   Of them, Stravinsky was the other great influence upon Copland.  Upon his return to the USA his early dalliance with jazz and “symphonic jazz” was more or less replaced by a severe, often dissonant style—one not often associated with Copland by much of today’s audiences, but definitely a life-long option for him in his compositions.  During the 1930s his interest in socialist perspectives crystallized for him and he turned to a more accessible, populist style that has come to be his hallmark for mainstream America.  His ballets, Billy the Kid, Rodeo, and Appalachian Spring, as well as his music for the films, Of Mice and Men and Our Town and other works all endeared him to a wide audience and made his reputation as composer of “American” music.  He continued that trend with the Lincoln Portrait, music for the film adaptation of Steinbeck’s Red Pony, and in 1946 premièred what many consider his most significant work, the monumental Third Symphony.  Shortly thereafter, Benny Goodman, who at the time was riding high in popularity, approached Copland with the idea of writing a concerto for the clarinet.  Two thousand dollars from Goodman did the trick, and Copland, who was (characteristically) in South America at the time, went to work, and it was finished the next year—1948.  There was some give and take along the way between Copland and Goodman—the latter was a tough man—and the first performance took place in 1950.

            It must be said, there is little of the popular image of Benny Goodman the jazz legend in this concerto, so put that association away at the outset.  But, it does speak much of the depth of musicianship of the great jazz virtuoso to commission and perform a composition so far removed from his natural musical métier.  Clarinetists everywhere owe him an immense debt for helping to bring to their repertoire a major work by one of America’s greatest composers.   It is all Copland, too, with little condescension to Goodman’s jazz orientation.  Alternatively entitled, “Concerto for Clarinet, Strings, and Harp” it is cast into two large sections, with a substantial cadenza for the soloist in between.

             The first movement is pensive, lyrical affair that takes full advantage of the lyric capabilities of the clarinet, floating on a lush and evocative cloud of harp and string sonorities.   As with all great artists, Copland is a creature of many guises, and the soul of this first section is that of gentle, yet profound sentiments familiar—and beloved—to audiences from parts of Appalachian Spring, or say, The Tender Land.  The ensuing clarinet cadenza begins quietly, extending the mood, but gradually becomes more and more demonstrative—even strident—and evolves into a quite different mood.   While the wild figurations may seem rather random, the composer is working through some of the important intervals and motives of the work.   The cadenza finally arrives at the intense, rhythmic character of the last section and we’re off to the races.   Light, staccato strings and piano bounce along on the spritely tempo as the clarinet dances with a seemingly endless stream of short ideas.   The ability of the clarinet to articulate clean, precise motives is the basis of the writing, here, as the Stravinsky-like texture races along.  Soon, things become more intense, rhythmic displacements abound, and we begin to hear more and more of the soloist’s intense high register.  It is to be admitted that short interludes of whimsy that remind one of Goodman’s style of improvisation interrupt from time to time, but not necessarily “jazzy” ones.   What becomes more and more prevalent are the syncopations of Mexican and South American folk music that Copland adored.  Add to that the composer’s intrinsic preferences for “spiky,” wide intervals (perfectly suited to the clarinet).  All of this is mixed, stirred, and intensified—along with piercing high notes from the clarinet—to the jerky, dancing conclusion.  This is the “other” side of Copland that is integral to so many of his compositions all throughout his career, and without which no picture of the man’s music is complete.  And thanks to the progressive side of Goodman, the world has a masterpiece for the instrument.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan