Tanglewood 75 - From the Audio Archives: Day 22


Copland: El Salón México
Copland: Concerto for Clarinet, Strings, and Harp
Koussevitzky Music Shed, July 5, 1980

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Aaron Copland, conductor
Harold Wright, clarinet

Release: 07/11/2012  



Background on the Music

Tanglewood 75 Archival Program CoverAaron Copland composed El Salón México between 1932 and 1936. It was the first of his orchestral works to depart from his early, modernist manner; Copland was intent on discovering a new style that would exert more popular appeal without compromising his artistic and technical standards.  Copland was born in 1900, but he was already famous and controversial. In 1925, before the premiere of Copland's first orchestral work, a Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, the conductor Walter Damrosch turned to the audience and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, I am sure you will agree that if a gifted young man can write a symphony like this at 23, within five years he will be ready to commit murder."

El Salón Mexico was different, and it was a hit; even Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops took it up and recorded it. And a young Harvard senior named Leonard Bernstein prepared a version for solo piano.

The piece was a result of a trip to Mexico that Copland made in 1932 at the invitation of the composer Carlos Chávez. Copland met Chávez, who was a year older, in 1927, and Chávez became his closest musical friend for the next fifty years.

During that trip, Chávez took Copland to what Copland called "a popular type dance hall in Mexico City." Scholars have looked the place up in a guidebook of the time, which described it as a Harlem-type nightclub "for the peepul, grand Cuban orchestra, Salón Mexico. Three halls; one for people dressed in your way, one for people dressed in overalls but shod, and one for the barefoot." Copland was captivated by what he saw and heard there - and apparently by a sign warning customers not to put out their cigarettes on the floor for fear that ladies might burn their feet. In his autobiography, developed from oral history conversations with Vivian Perlis, Copland recalled, "My thoughts kept returning to that dance hall. It wasn't so much the music or the dances that attracted me as the spirit of the place. In some inexplicable way, while milling about in those crowded halls, I had felt a live contact with the Mexican people ... their humanity, their shyness, their dignity and unique charm, and conceived the idea of a piece that would capture that atmosphere."

In composing El Salón México, Copland did not use any of the actual music he heard in the dance hall; instead, he chose authentic Mexican folk tunes as the basis for his work. But Copland did not deploy the tunes in their original form - instead he fragmented them and exhilaratingly spun them through mazes of metrical complexity. He also harmonized and orchestrated the music in unconventional ways. The result is a 12-minute explosion of invention, color, and rhythmic energy.

The Clarinet Concerto is a later work, but it too is written in an accessible idiom because it was commissioned by the great jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman, who paid $2000 for it - "that's real money,'' he told Vivian Perlis.  Copland began writing it in 1947 but took his time to finish it; part of it was composed at Tanglewood. The premiere took place on the radio in 1950, with Goodman as soloist and Fritz Reiner conducting the NBC Symphony. Every prominent clarinetist since then has taken it up, and Jerome Robbins used the score for his ballet The Pied Piper. Goodman found one passage too difficult, so Copland simplified it; some later clarinetists have enjoyed showing off by playing the original.

The piece is in two movements, the first contemplative, the second jazzy; the two movements are linked by an elaborate cadenza for the clarinet. 

When Serge Koussevitzky became the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, he asked his friend, the great musician and teacher Nadia Boulanger, if she could recommend any young American composers to his attention. She spoke to him about her young pupil Aaron Copland. Koussevitzky became the principal patron of Copland's early years, commissioning and premiering several of his works, and performing most of the rest of them as they were completed. This inaugurated a relationship between Copland and the BSO that continued for the rest of his life. And for the first 25 years of the existence of the Tanglewood Music Center, Copland served as head of the faculty, influencing and inspiring generations of younger composers and other musicians. The concert offered in this download was planned as a double celebration - 40 years of the Tanglewood Music Center and Copland's forthcoming 80th birthday.

Copland has stood for so long as the beloved godfather of American music that it is important to remember that he was still in his early 20's when he composed his first work for the Boston Symphony. And he was still only 37 when Leonard Bernstein met him for the first time. "I had an image of Aaron as a kind of great patriarch, with a beard, looking something like Walt Whitman, and of a certain age, and like a fiery, declamatory Old Testament-type prophet, because that's all in the music. What was my amazement when I met this 37 year-old, lean, charming, smiling, toothy, happy, affable man."

In his later years, Copland began to compose less and conduct more often - it was a way for him to keep his name and music before the public and to generate income. Conductors make more money than composers, even composers of the stature of Copland.  He was not a virtuoso conductor, but he knew how he wanted his music to sound, and there was always a sense of occasion when he was on the podium. No one could begrudge him the pleasure that conducting gave him, and when he died, he left most of his substantial estate to establish the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, which helps subsidize the activities of subsequent generations of American composers.

He first led the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood in 1957 and the 1980 concert presented here was his last appearance with the orchestra as conductor. His programs nearly always featured his own music, but sometimes presented work by such colleagues as William Schuman, David Diamond, Carl Ruggles, and even an early work by Elliott Carter.  His repertory also included works by Purcell, Busoni, Prokofiev, Bartók, Stravinsky, and Chávez, and on the Boston Symphony's tour to Japan and Australia in 1960, Copland found himself replacing Charles Munch, who was ill, in Haydn's Symphony No. 95 and Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony in Adelaide, Australia. It was there that Copland made a famous remark about the Boston Symphony. An interviewer asked him how Australia might create such an orchestra and Copland replied that it would take a century - and millions of dollars.

Copland remained devoted to Tanglewood. He was an honored occasional visitor until he died at the age of 90, in 1990, and his ashes were ceremoniously scattered at Tanglewood in a bower behind the Theatre-Concert Hall to the sounds of his own music. Today, in the middle of the bower, stands a bust of the composer by Penelope Jencks that was commissioned by John Williams.

For a quarter of a century Tanglewood was one of the chief platforms from which Copland exercised his influence as a fully involved citizen of the musical world, along with his lectures, his books, his radio and, later, television appearances, the concerts and concert series he promoted, his informal advice, his genuine curiosity about what younger people were up to. These activities supplemented the direct influence of his music.

As a teacher, Copland viewed his role as identifying what it was that his students were trying to accomplish and pointing out to them how they could communicate it more directly, clearly, and effectively. Characteristically, he treated his students as colleagues who happened to be at a different point on their own lifelong voyage of discovery, a voyage comparable to his own.

Copland's Tanglewood years were also the years during which his new works made him an icon - among the creations of this quarter-century of his life were the Piano Sonata, the Piano Fantasy, the Clarinet Concerto, the Third Symphony, the Piano Quartet, the dance scores Rodeo and Appalachian Spring,all five of his film scores, the song cycle Twelve Poems by Emily Dickinson,his orchestral work for the opening of Philharmonic Hall, Connotations,the opera The Tender Land,and such beloved works as Fanfare for the Common Man and Lincoln Portrait.   He worked on many of these pieces and projects during his summers at Tanglewood.    

Copland could and did write severe music, as well as music of surpassing gentleness and tenderness; he could evoke urban clangor and urban angst, the back-porch serenity of Middle America, the wide-open spaces of the unconquered West. Both the fiery prophet and the charming, smiling, toothy, happy, affable man can be heard in his music; a pervasive, public, and unflappable optimism offset the private anxieties of an outsider, Jewish and homosexual.

What bound all these activities together, and what makes the music sound so whole, was the unassuming but certain strength of Copland's own personality; he once wrote of the way music mirrors "cherishable aspects of human consciousness." While many bars in the work of subsequent composers might easily be mistaken for music by Copland - he was that influential - not a bar of his music, no matter in what genre, style, or technique, could be mistaken for music by anyone else.  He was a most uncommon man, and uncommonly humble, and he bowed before what he called "the majesty of music's expressive power, before its capacity to make manifest a deeply spiritual resource of mankind.''  Just as everyone remarked on how his face was ageless, his music sounds as if it had always been there, waiting for him to come along and write it down.

Notes are just notes, but when you hear them, you want to find out what they're talking about, you want to try to get to the essence of the material.  How notes get to have their significance - that's the great mystery.  No one will ever solve that.  But what else could keep you interested for so long?
Aaron Copland, interview in The Boston Globe, November 30, 1975

Harold Wright was the Boston Symphony Orchestra's principal clarinet between 1970 and 1993. He has already appeared in this series in a performance of the Brahms Trio for Piano, Clarinet, and Cello with Emanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma. He was a great musician, admired not just by audiences but by conductors and his colleagues in the orchestra. It was no accident that conductor after conductor programmed Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony during Wright's years in the BSO - everyone wanted to hear him play that clarinet solo one more time, and no one ever wanted it to end.

Richard Dyer



"The most unfamiliar work on the program was [the clarinet concerto].  Composed for Benny Goodman, it offered Harold Wright, the Boston Symphony's principal clarinetist, as soloist. Mr. Wright played very beautifully.  But some combination of the balances, his personality, and his decision to play seated behind a music stand made him seem too deferential, especially in the perky final movement. . . 'I'm a late starter as a conductor,' Mr. Copland remarked genially before the concert. 'I've only really been at it for the last 10 or 20 years. I would have begun sooner, but my good friend Serge Koussevitzky shook his finger at me and said, "You must not waste your time; you must compose." But as soon as he died, I started conducting - it was a repressed passion . . .' When the rains started, Mr. Copland looked up in alarm.  'This is all right for [Seiji] Ozawa; he conducts here every night,' he worried. 'But this is my one time, and I don't want that pitter-patter. And those poor dears on the lawn - I feel sorry for them . . .' [Mr. Copland] seemed unabashedly pleased that people cared enough to muster up such celebrations [as this] at all. 'I feel good about the whole thing,' he said. 'If nobody did anything, I think I'd feel rather sad.'"
-John Rockwell, New York Times

"It's said that a composer is seldom honored in his own time. You'd never have known it from this concert. An audience of 8,479 - large for a rainy night - lost no opportunity to pay homage to the 79-year-old [Aaron Copland ] as he conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a program of his own works. The composer clearly returned the sentiment.  Age has not dimmed the vigor of his conducting, and when he turned his famous hawk-like profile toward the audience, there was usually a smile to be seen. The orchestra seemed to enjoy playing for him, too, giving him polished performances and a unity of purpose. . .El Salón México is still fun to listen to. The Clarinet Concerto, lyrical in its opening movement and jazz-inspired in its finale, sounded better than ever, thanks in part to Harold Wright's beautifully measured performance as soloist."
-Andrew L. Pincus, Berkshire Eagle

"Aaron Copland's music is full of the sound of American places and American feelings. It is one of those artistic achievements that defines what it is like to be the way we are. It is as much a part of us as Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher in the cave, Captain Ahab raging at the sky, Jay Gatsby looking out across the sound, and Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling. Not everybody knows that he knows Copland's music, but the way composers for the movies and for television constantly imitate it means that no one can think of the quiet city, of the Midwest at harvest home, or the becoming frontier of the West, of rural life anywhere, or of the stabilizing values of the past, without hearing the sounds first imagined by a composer who grew up in the noisy streets of Brooklyn. . .[This was] a collection of Copland lollipops. Within that self-imposed limitation it was all pretty wonderful, bursting with original and arresting colors of orchestration, rhythmic vitality and melody crossing wide-open spaces. The performances were pretty wonderful too, with the orchestra outstanding in solo and ensemble. And Harold Wright's performance of the concerto Copland wrote for Benny Goodman was a miracle of tonal refinement and telling emotional restraint. At some of the jazzier moments in the cadenza and finale one might have wanted more flair and blare out of the clarinet but the chamber-music intimacies of the opening were something of rare rapt beauty. Copland himself still boasts enormous physical energies - it is not necessary to add the qualification 'for a man of nearly 80' - and he has a large, clear and steady beat. But the finest thing about his conducting is the enthusiasm he communicates, the joy he obviously feels in being up there right there in the middle of things."
-Richard Dyer, Boston Globe