Listening to Aaron Copland

Piano concerto (1926)

The concerto opens with a bold statement in the brass, but the piano enters alone, with a thoughtful, wandering melody.  Influences from jazz are evident in the harmonies, heavily syncopated rhythms and distinctive switches between major and minor.  It starts at a slow tempo with quite a brooding mood, but the second half is more upbeat, featuring percussion, accented syncopation, and a cheeky solo on the soprano saxophone.  In places it’s reminiscent of the music of George Gershwin, a contemporary composer also living in New York whose jazz style became very popular.

El Salon Mexico (1936)

Written in the style of Mexican folk music, this piece has much simpler melodies and rhythms than Copland’s piano concerto.  It is a single movement work for symphony orchestra (including piano), with several distinct sections which call to mind different dances or ‘scenes’ in the dance hall the piece was inspired by.  It retains certain elements of jazz – syncopation and glissandos in the clarinet for example, but has much more of a folk feel.

Appalachian Spring (1944)

Unlike the two previous pieces, this was scored for chamber orchestra, although has since been arranged for full symphony orchestra.  It opens very slowly and gently in A major, with long sustained notes.  Then a sudden increase in pace, and a faster section based on a simple descending scale passage.  The piece contains fairly frequent changes in time signature, but the rhythms are generally uncomplicated and catchy.  Likewise there is a very clear tonal centre throughout, slowly changing harmonies and easily singable melodies.  The final section (before the coda) is probably the most famous, written as variations on a Shaker melody called ‘simple gifts‘.

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