Good Thing Copland’s Dead

There’s a whole breed of music I hate. Officially, it’s called modern, or 20th century. I call it artsy fartsy. As far as I care, this genre sounds as if the scores from all three Eastwood-Leone films were played at the same time. Not my cup of tea.

Although my veteran’s band I’m in plays mostly marches and Americana and insulates us from most twelve-tone atrocities, we still put up with our share of the avant garde. The next concert’s masochistic selection is Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait. Ugh.

Lincoln Portrait features Aaron Copland at his Aaron Copland-est. Published at the outset of American involvement in the Second World War, it’s pretty much what you’d expect from Copland and his period — cheesily uplifting narration; triumphant brass; a main motif that sounds almost cribbed from Gone With the Wind.

It’s all well and good to listen to, I suppose, if melodramatic repetition is your thing, but it’s hell to play. From the bandsman’s perspective, it’s full of key changes, unfriendly time signatures and hatred of all mankind. I’d rather play the Faerie’s Aire and Death Waltz.

It doesn’t help that this piece’s director doesn’t have the firmest grasp of the material. Although there are reference numbers at every 10 bars, without fail, he’ll inevitably tell us that we should start seven measures before 150, or three after 210.

We don’t play this piece very well, even in the parts with the courtesy to stay in the same key for more than a few measures. Before we get far, he’ll stop us, and we’ll start over again.

In frustration, and forced good humor, he called us out on our unintended dissonance.

Seriously, now — Lincoln is the good guy.

With all this bad and ugly, we’d never have noticed.


  1. Ancient Bearded One

    I’m surprised you made no mention of Peter Schickele’s Bach Portrait, a wonderful lampoon of Copland and his musical fetishes.

  2. I haven’t listened to the Bach Portrait in a long while; thanks for reminding me.

  3. invernessfalls

    Well it’s always better when James Earl Jones narrates.

    I’d hardly call Copland avant garde, though. And there are probably more good composers from the 20th/21st centuries than there were before 1800.

  4. I’m about to ramble and become rather long-winded in about two sentences, old friend.

    James Earl Jones just has one of those voices, and that he’s a black man narrating the Lincoln Portrait isn’t lost on me, but even he couldn’t stop the “this is what he said” construction from getting pretty old, very quickly.

    Copland was pretty avant garde for his time. He was no Glass or Cage, but they came a few decades later — Copland was certainly a little off-kilter, if not as much as Stravinsky. No melody in the traditional sense, and no consistency in key or time signatures. Most of that bunk is avant garde enough for me to dislike it.

    I’d agree that there were more good composers recently than Baroque-ly and Classical-ly, though. Don’t even get me started on early music. After a while, everything released before the American Revolution starts to sound the same. Of course, the Romantic century roughly between Beethoven and Holst beats all other eras of orchestral music rather easily.

    Then again, I’m more of a fan of marches than anything because they’re so gosh-darn fun to play; take what I say here with a rather large grain of salt. After all, at the turn of the century, Sousa was the equivalent of Britney Spears or Celine Dion — cheap pop fluff, mass produced for mass consumption.

    … and that’s pretty much all I know about music history.

  5. Oh, and my disparaging remarks about Copland don’t extend to his larger corpus of work — Fanfare for the Common Man is Aaron Copland at his least Aaron Copland-est, and I happen to like it. It’s just that the Lincoln Portrait strikes me as a particularly egregious piece of inscrutable self-indulgence.

  6. Ancient Bearded One

    I have to take invernessfalls to task on the statement that “there are probably more good composers from the 20th/21st centuries than there were before 1800”. Please study the composers of the 12th through 17th centuries before taking that opinion. There were dozens to hundreds in each of those centuries, many of the earliest ones anonymous or whose names are known but whose works are not positively attributable. Almost all of the great medieval and renaissance composers were highly inventive, very prolific, and capable of extraordinarily complex music that is often easily approachable. I am especially fascinated by the short pieces (e.g. the Issak mass propers or the Tallis Miserere Mei) that contain so much material in such a short space.

    By the way, one of the tenor parts in that Tallis piece “quotes” Copland’s Fanfare. Like PDQ Bach, a sort of plagiarism by anticipation.

  7. I’ll tell Mr. O’Connor you think so.




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