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Symphony No. 3

The monumental Symphony No. 3 of Aaron Copland, completed in 1946, has a special relationship to Tanglewood.

Composition and premiere: Copland wrote his Symphony No. 3 on a 1944 commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation at Serge Koussevitzky’s request for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 1946-47 season. He wrote the first movement in 1944, the second in summer 1945, and the third in fall 1945. The finale, incorporating the composer’s Fanfare for the Common Man, was written in summer/fall 1946—interrupted by his teaching duties at Tanglewood. Koussevitzky led the premiere with the BSO in Symphony Hall on October 18, 1946, toured it to New York and Pittsburgh, and repeated it in Boston in December. The first Tanglewood performance was the following summer, July 26, 1947, again with Koussevitzky conducting. Andris Nelsons led the BSO in the most recent Tanglewood performance on July 12, 2019.

The monumental Symphony No. 3 of Aaron Copland, completed in 1946, has a special relationship to Tanglewood. Parts of it were actually written on its grounds, where Copland taught generations of composers for twenty-five years, and the work was commissioned for and premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the baton of its then music director, the legendary Serge Koussevitzky, during their regular concert season in Boston. Copland’s relationship to the symphony as a musical form, however, is more complicated.

Despite receiving the New York Music Critics Circle Prize for the best orchestral work by an American composer during the 1946-47 season and now frequently hailed as the greatest American work in the genre, Copland’s Third Symphony was disparaged as “false” by one of his greatest allies, composer-critic Virgil Thomson, shortly after its premiere. It was the last time Copland ever used the appellation “Symphony” for a musical composition. Symphony No. 3 was actually the fourth piece he had composed with the word “symphony” in its title, and the only one to bear a numeric designation from its inception. The Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, a hybrid symphony-concerto from 1924, was his earliest. In 1928, Copland created an alternate version without organ, designating it Symphony No. 1. And after finishing the Third, Copland assigned the number two slot to his single-movement Short Symphony (1933). But there’s also a Dance Symphony (1930), a reworking of portions of his score for the early ballet Grohg.

The Third Symphony, scored for a large orchestra comprising a total of twenty-six wind and brass players, five percussionists, celesta, piano, two harps, and strings, occupied Copland for over two years. The result proved to be his longest instrumental composition and indeed it is his most clearly symphonic.

Despite Copland’s concerns over the pedigree of bona fide symphonies, his Third Symphony contains a few quirks. Although it does not quote any folksongs or hymns, as had many of his previous works, it incorporates his own popular Fanfare for the Common Man (1942) in its entirety, and the Fanfare’s basic melodic contours permeate all four of the symphony’s movements. And while having four movements is traditional symphonic practice, Copland’s tempos and lengths do not conform to established orthodoxies. The first (Molto moderato) is extremely short and rather slow; the final two flow together without pause. Copland pointed out, in his notes for the premiere performance in 1946, that the first movement is not cast in the sonata-allegro form typical of most symphonic first movements. Rather, it plainly states three consecutive modal themes, all in different keys: an expansive fanfare in E with broad leaps introduced in the strings and then echoed in the brass and woodwinds; a stylistically similar, more hymn-like melody in the violas and oboes which begins in A and winds up in E-flat; and a fugal tune in D minor introduced by a solo trombone, then taken up by the rest of the brass with countermelodies in the other sections. After the briefest of developments, the music returns to the original key of E. Copland composed this movement during summer 1944 in Topoztlán, Mexico. Copland described the second movement (Allegro molto), composed the following summer in Bernardsville, New Jersey, as “closer to normal symphonic procedures [of] the usual scherzo, with first part, trio, and return.” But that’s somewhat of an oversimplification. Like the opening movement, it begins with a modal fanfare. But that is merely a prelude. Twitterings in the woodwinds, led by the piccolo with additional support from the xylophone and orchestral piano, lead to the real theme: an expansion of the fanfare motive played by clarinets, solo horn, and violas in unison. This theme is developed in typical symphonic fashion, occasionally stretched out or condensed with overlapping countermelodies culminating in an almost military band-like march replete with snare drum. But a key change and meter change signals a completely new idea, a pastoral waltz. This morphs into a concertante passage for piano that ushers in a triumphant return to the march.

In the contemplative third movement (Andantino quasi allegretto), composed in Ridgefield, Connecticut, in April 1946, brass and percussion remain silent throughout except for a lone trumpet, horn, celesta, and glockenspiel, whose roles are mostly marginal. According to Copland it is “the freest of all in formal structure.” The movement opens with the fugal theme from the first movement. But here, now in B minor and stretched out chromatically as well as contrapuntally in the strings, this melody takes on a more somber tone. A plaintive but angular melody is introduced by the flute and then transformed through the strings and the rest of the winds. A muted trumpet initiates the next idea, a faster two-step serving as a transition. After only a few measures, piccolo, oboe, and strings take over this material, now transposed, and then the plaintive flute melody makes a brief reappearance over the celesta and harps. A vigorous passage for winds and strings further develops that theme, gradually slowing down and fading away into a series of ghost-like string harmonics ending up in A major. But a chorale passage for the reed instruments surprisingly modulates the music to A-flat major, firmly reinforced by a final chord in the low strings.

The final movement (Molto deliberato—Allegro risoluto) directly follows, its first quiet notes built on top of the previous movement’s final chord. It is the theme of the Fanfare for the Common Man, though much less bombastic than in its instantly recognizable guise. But after these first tentative glimmers, the music abruptly shifts to C major and Copland’s original Fanfare, with its famous brass and timpani call and response, emerges. A new theme subsequently passed around throughout the rest of the orchestra is explored, with hints of the Fanfare occasionally rising to the surface. The material eventually builds to a turbulent cacophony. The syncopated countermelody and the Fanfare return together in yet new guises and harmonies along with thematic material from the first movement. It is his total summation, and it all ends resoundingly with a big D major chord played by the entire orchestra. While Copland was fleshing out the symphony, the United States emerged victorious in the Second World War. It is difficult not to hear the piece as in some way a response to that. But Copland has stated that he did not write the symphony as a direct response to the war, although he conceded that its “affirmative tone” was “certainly related to its time.” Copland worked on this final movement throughout the summer of 1946, first at the MacDowell Colony, then here at Tanglewood, and made his final touches to the symphony on September 29, 1946, in a converted barn in nearby Richmond, Massachusetts.

Frank J. Oteri

Composer, writer, and speaker Frank J. Oteri is the Composer Advocate at New Music USA and has been the Editor of the web magazine NewMusicBox since its launch online in May 1999.