MISSOULA SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA CONCERT
November 8 & 9, 2014
Copland — Fanfare for the Common Man
This inspiring, short work was written during World War II to honor, in Copland’s words, the common people who were “doing all the dirty work in the war and the army.”
Copland — Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes
This four-movement piece, originally conceived as a ballet, employs folk songs and colorful instrumental effects to paint a portrait of life on a western ranch.
Ravel — Mother Goose Suite
The French composer originally wrote this music as a series of five piano pieces, each of them inspired by a different Mother Goose story.
Ravel — Boléro
This exciting and unusual work consists of just one melodic snippet repeated over and over, gradually building to a huge climax. It is Ravel’s most famous composition.
Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
Fanfare for the Common Man and Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes
Aaron Copland is widely regarded, both in America and abroad, as this country’s greatest orchestral composer, past or present. Born in the first year of the new century, he captured the sentimentality and optimism of his time and place in a way that few composers of any nation have managed.
Ironically, Copland first began to establish his musical voice when he went to France to study under Nadia Boulanger. But after returning to the United States, Copland began to feel that the music of the moderns was growing increasingly disconnected from the realities of ordinary people.
This Brooklyn-born intellectual of Russian-Jewish descent ultimately found his inspiration and signature voice in the iconic stories and wide-open places of rural America.
In 1942, fresh from completing his inspirational patriotic work, Lincoln Portrait (which you may remember from a Missoula Symphony Orchestra concert two years ago), Copland was asked by conductor Eugene Goosens of the Cincinnati Symphony to contribute one of a planned eighteen fanfares commissioned for the orchestra's 1943 season, as artistic contributions to the war effort. Other commissioned composers included Henry Cowell, Paul Creston, Howard Hanson and Walter Piston.
Most of the composers chose to dedicate their fanfares to some famed military unit or ally in the war. But Copland, ever sympathetic to the weak and poor, chose to name his work Fanfare for the Common Man.
“It was the common man, after all, who was doing all the dirty work in the war and the army,” reasoned Copland. “He deserved a fanfare.”
In keeping with his signature style, Copland employed open intervals of fourths and fifths for the music’s primary melody, combining triumphal cadences with an undertone of nostalgia that captured the mood of the time perfectly.
Rodeo comes from that same productive year — but it almost didn’t come at all.
In the spring of 1942, the prominent dancer and choreographer Agnes de Mille asked Copland to write a ballet set on a western ranch. Copland initially dismissed the idea: Having already written a cowboy ballet in his 1938 hit, Billy the Kid, the composer didn’t want to risk repeating himself.
De Mille persisted. This would be a different concept, a tale not of heroism but of simple life, a common love story in which a cowgirl vies for the attention of the ranch hands.
Copland was ultimately convinced, and quickly produced what would become one of his most celebrated works. A year later, a suite of music from the ballet was premiered by the Boston Pops. The four-movement concert version leaves most of the music intact, omitting one scene.
The first movement, “Buckaroo Holiday,” sets the tone of the music that follows. After a vivacious opening fanfare, the cowgirl’s lyrical theme appears in the woodwinds. The music moves on, creating vivid images of life on the ranch and quoting two old cowboy tunes, “Sis Joe” and “If He’d Be a Buckaroo.”
The next movement, “Corral Nocturne,” expresses the cowgirl’s unrequited love. Then comes “Saturday Night Waltz,” a lilting dance that begins with the sound of the fiddlers tuning up. Here another folk tune, “Old Paint,” is quoted.
In the last movement, “Hoe-Down,” the cowgirl finally gets her man — and the ranch hands dance excitedly to the strains of two more folk tunes, “Bonypart” and “McLeod’s Reel.”
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Mother Goose Suite and Boléro
We are all familiar with the stories of famous school dropouts who went on to achieve greatness as inventors and entrepreneurs, among them Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and both of the Wright Brothers. But in the academically entwined world of classical music, school failure has almost uniformly spelled the end of promising musical careers.
The one great exception is Maurice Ravel.
Born in France in 1875, Ravel showed plenty of early promise as a pianist and composer, and was accepted into the Paris Conservatory for training. However, after failing to win a competitive medal at the school for three years straight, he was expelled in 1895. Undaunted, Ravel returned to the school’s composition program. In 1900, he was expelled from that program, too.
By then, he was 25 years old. He had yet to produce any semblance of a publicly successful work. But, encouraged by his college teacher, the notable composer Gabriel Faure, and a blossoming colleagueship with the most famous French composer of the day, Claude Debussy, Ravel persevered.
Flash forward to today, when we find ourselves listening to two works that now stand as cornerstones of the 20th century orchestral canon: Mother Goose Suite and Boléro. In hindsight, we recognize Ravel’s genius in virtually everything he wrote after his dismissal from school — and most certainly in these pieces, which have been performed throughout the world, recorded and re-recorded by every major orchestra, and adapted for use in film, commercials and pop music.
Ravel’s was a singular talent, combining a penchant for revelatory harmonic and textural innovations with a gift for immediately memorable melodies. It is easy to like Ravel’s music on first listen — a fact that isn’t always true for other equally great composers of his time, whose innovations still challenge our modern ears.
In 1908, as a surprise gift for the children of his friends Ida and Jean Godebski, Ravel set out to create a suite of five piano duets based on famous Mother Goose (Ma Mère l'Oye) stories including Tom Thumb, Sleeping Beauty, the Empress of the Pagodas and Beauty and the Beast.
Three years after completing the piano version of the suite, Ravel orchestrated the five movements, creating the music we will hear in this concert. (He also later created a ballet based on the music.)
Mother Goose Suite encapsulates the fullest range of Ravel’s voice. Passages of exquisite delicacy contrast with dizzying climaxes. Mysterious moods coexist with soothing, simply lullabies. The tunes are easy to enjoy; yet beneath the surface, this is highly inventive music, full of exotic textures that tickle the ear in ways never previously heard in the concert hall.
In practically everything he wrote, Ravel experimented and took risks. There is no greater example of this truism than Ravel’s most famous work, Boléro.
During a seaside vacation with a friend in 1928, Ravel woke one morning and plinked out a melody on the piano. “Don't you think this theme has a certain insistent quality?” he asked his friend. “I'm going to try and repeat it a number of times without any development, gradually increasing the orchestra as best I can.” Upon returning home, he quickly set to work on the score, which he envisioned as a short ballet based on the Spanish bolero dance for Ida Rubinstein’s then-revered troupe.
The music followed Ravel’s conception exactly. As a snare drum taps out a repeating rhythm, a succession of instruments — some alone, some in unusual groupings — play the melody and then join the accompaniment. The music swells with each addition, until a climactic and perfectly timed key change. The transition topples the balance, and the piece ends in a spectacular flourish.
The ballet was premiered at the Paris Opera and was an instant success. This surprised no-one more than its composer, who still felt compelled to issue a disclaimer of sorts after the music was first performed:
“I am particularly anxious that there should be no misunderstanding as to my Boléro. It is an experiment in a very special and limited direction…(consisting) wholly of orchestral texture without music—of one long, very gradual crescendo. There are no contrasts, and there is practically no invention except in the plan and the manner of the execution.”
Ravel’s self-deprecation has, in the end, been muffled by the cheers of audiences the world over. In a sense, Boléro is the most indisputable proof of Ravel’s brilliance. At a time when composers (including Ravel himself) were experimenting with the most radical expansions of form, melody and harmony, Ravel created a revelatory masterwork out of nothing but the deft and subtle development of a single snippet of perfectly tonal music. How many other artists could have achieved such a thing?
This concert will be broadcast over Montana Public Radio on Sunday evening, November 23, at 7 p.m.
KUFM Missoula, 89.1 KUFM North Missoula, 91.5 KUFN Hamilton, 91.9 KUKL Kalispell, 90.1 KAPC Butte, 91.3 KUHM Helena 91.7, KUFL Libby, 90.5 KPJH Polson, 89.5 KGPR Great Falls, 89.9
- Joe Nickell