By Maia Thielen, Events & Community Engagement Manager
There's a bright golden haze on the meadow,
These words aren’t just the opening lines to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s country musical Oklahoma, but a textual portrait of the American landscape: a grand landscape with a distinct orchestral language all its own. This language is instantly recognizable: strings rise like the fronds of coarse wheat and swaying prairie grasses. Woodwind breezes playfully weave through the string pastures. Brass pomp serves as an echo of the sun off the purple mountains. The whole scene reverberates in majestic open fourths and fifths. Of course, the settling of the American West was more complicated and grimmer than its musical fantasy, but the stunning plains and peaks of this country's landscape have inspired a rich orchestral tradition that still rings forth today with enchantment and awe.
When it comes to the founding of this tradition, there is perhaps no composer more influential than Aaron Copland. On March 7th and 8th, the Bozeman Symphony performs Copland's "Clarinet Concerto" with guest artist Jon Manasse and Music Director finalist Thomas Heuser. While the concerto explores a different American tradition—jazz—I'd like to share some favorite Copland pieces and works that follow in his pastoral footsteps.
You may be familiar with Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man , Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, and Rodeo (if not, I encourage you to click the links to give them a listen)—all fantastic and well-known examples of his agrarian style. You may also notice that list is comprised of both a symphonic work and ballets, for Copland's compositional style seamlessly transitions between many different forms: symphonies, ballets, operas, art songs, and films. Among his film credits, a sublime Americana marriage can be found: that between Copland and author John Steinbeck—my favorite writer, whose 118th birthday would have been today—on 1948's The Red Pony and 1939's Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck himself adapted his Red Pony novella into a screenplay for the film which, while not a commercial success, gave us what is now known as The Red Pony Suite. Listen to the first movement, "Morning on the Ranch" (YouTube link below) with its prancing opening fanfare which then unfurls into a delicate, introspective melody. These two themes alternate, perfectly expressing the infatuation and reverence Steinbeck held for his beloved Salinas Valley.
The sound of the American landscape and influences of Copland can even be found in Disney films and attractions. Listen to how accomplished film composers Randy Newman and Jerry Goldsmith convey the grandeur of the trees and meadows from a bug's perspective and the splendor of California's varied ecosystems, respectively, using similar conventions.
The American orchestral language is one of my favorite symphonic styles. These pieces capture the thrill, adventure, and hope of the Old West, as well as a nostalgia for a time when the land was untamed. Grasses, cliffs, sunrises, and storms speak for themselves in these compositions, whispering and thundering with mystique and promise.
Thank you for joining me on this musical tour! Do you have any favorite pieces that evoke the American landscape or tradition? Leave a comment so we can all keep exploring!