Letter from Home

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            It is difficult, indeed, in these times truly to understand the profound differences—between then and now--of the impact of our nation’s wars upon our national experience.  Our recent wars, while demanding great sacrifice of those directly involved, pale in their engagement of the vast majority of our people in comparison with the generation of World War II.  In those parlous times of the forties, the nation’s very existence was at stake, and almost every man, woman, and child was enlisted in the effort to ensure the triumph of our values.  Twenty-four seven—there was only one subject in the national conversation. Consequently, every aspect of American culture reflected the fears, the stress, the sacrifice, the hope, and the commitment to duty of that “greatest generation.”   And in the arts, there remains today eloquent evidence of the deep understanding of writers, visual artists, dancers, and composers of the time of the need to express the inner responses of the people to overwhelming experience.

            Letter from Home, while it could stand on its own as abstract music about anything with which you may care to associate it, is nevertheless a sensitive and eloquent depiction of a specific, commonplace experience of that war.  Those who did live through it are dwindling down to a few, now.  But millions of that time were separated from their homes, their loved ones, and their quiet lives, and dealt with the complex feelings of that separation.  Aaron Copland articulated that quiet, personal anguish perfectly in this expression of the common—but deeply personal—national experience.

            By 1944 Copland enjoyed national prominence and admiration for his masterful ability to compose art music that nevertheless spoke to the common American.  His ballets, Rodeo, Billy the Kid, and Appalachian Spring, Fanfare for the Common Man, Lincoln Portrait—all were composed in a musical idiom that was accessible and perceived as quintessentially American.  It was thus completely characteristic that when the well-known band leader, Paul Whiteman (of Rhapsody in Blue fame) sent out a call for patriotic compositions to feature on his regular radio broadcast, Copland responded with a little gem.  He was not alone, of course.  Others who came forth were luminaries of American music such as the young Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington, Ferde Grofé, Peter De Rose—even Igor Stravinsky!

            At the time, Copland was living in rural Mexico, away from his own family; his mother had just died, his father’s mental faculties had failed, and his own brother and nephew were away in the war.  Working by candlelight, he completed Letter from Home in May of 1944, and its broadcast première on the ABC Philco Radio Hour was in October of that year.  In his own words:  “I only wanted to convey the emotions that might naturally be awakened in the recipient by receiving a letter from home.”

            And so he did, in a musical language so familiar to us now from countless imitators in the music all around us—whenever the evocation of the timeless, fundamental American experience is sought—Copland wove this little masterpiece of nostalgia, melancholy, and sadness.  His skill at this was borne out in his music for the film version of Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town.  But, it’s not all simple loneliness for home and family though, for the middle of the work moves to a dissonant, powerful reflection of understandable fear and tension in the face of the unknown that so many suffered.  In the end though, as with the people, a quiet resolution carries the day.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan