Lectures/Scripts/WritingsTelevision ScriptsYoung People's ConcertsAaron Copland Birthday Party
Young People's Concert
Aaron Copland Birthday Party
Written by Leonard Bernstein
Original CBS Television Network Broadcast Date: 12 February 1961
Last year, if you remember, we all had a birthday party here in Carnegie Hall in honor of the great composer, Gustav Mahler, who would then have been 100 years old. Today, we're going to have a 60th birthday party for another composer, our own loved and admired Aaron Copland, and this time we're going to meet him in person later in the program. When you do meet him, I think the first thing about him that will strike you is his youthfulness — not only the youthfulness of his face, but also of his smile, of his conducting vigor, of his almost boyish personality, and especially of his spirit. It's almost impossible to list for you all the things Mr. Copland has done for the young during his lifetimes the dozens of young composers he has rooted for and brought success to: the even more dozens whom he has taught at Tanglewood and at Harvard and at other places; and most of all, the many pieces he has written mainly to be performed by young people.
Well, today we are going to begin our Copland birthday party with a young people's overture — (of course you remember what an overture is from our last program, I hope) — an overture he wrote for the High School of Music and Art Orchestra, here in New York City. It's called "AN OUTDOOR OVERTURE," and I think you'll understand immediately why he called it "outdoor" when you hear those athletic marchy rhythms, and those long melodies filled with fresh air and light. Here is Aaron Copland's OUTDOOR OVERTURE.
Now that's what you call an outdoor overture — it really gets your blood circulating, like a brisk walk in the woods. And it's very typical of Copland — that easy, fresh style, so open-hearted and frank. But it shows us only one side of Copland's music, because the truth is that his music is full of variety, like a flower-garden. There are big juicy white flowers, and little thorny ones, and great majestic bushes, and then tiny shy little buds — all kinds. But perhaps the main difference in his music is between the big white ones — which are so easy to see and appreciate and even love, like the overture we just heard — and those thorny ones that are not so easy to see and love right off the bat, and are sort of tricky to handle, especially at the first touch. Although some of Copland's greatest compositions are thorny ones, I don't see why we shouldn't play some of them too, especially for this audience of young people; your minds are wide-open to everything, new or old.
Besides, these thorny pieces aren't really so frightening once you know a little about them.
Here's a short one, for instance, one of a series of six short pieces for orchestra called simply "STATEMENTS." Each of these statements has a name describing its own particular feeling, and the one we're going to hear is called "DOGMATIC" — That's a very grown-up word meaning stubborn, believing firmly in something, and refusing to be talked out of it. Dogmatic. So this piece begins with a musical idea that seems made of rock, it's so hard and firm.
Granite. Iron. Dogmatic
Well, that hard-boiled idea is the reason for some of the rocky, thorny sounds you will hear in this piece, but not for all of them.
After all, don't forget that this is modern music, music of our time; and we are living in some pretty rocky times. Besides, music changes and grows all through history, like all ideas; and what used to be considered right and normal is very different from what's right and normal these days. For instance that chord we just heard;
That's a rough one, isn't it? I guess Beethoven or Mozart would have thought that one impossible, a dissonance, as it is called.
Modern music. But these days, we're used to it: just see how easy it is to get used to it.
You see? Now it seems quite right and normal. Just because Copland is telling a dogmatic emotion in his music, there's no reason for us listeners to be dogmatic about our musical tastes; we must always be open to new ideas; because ideas in our world are always changing. In the same way, ideas change about what a melody ought to be.
For instance, in the middle of this piece, the brass instruments suddenly blare out a thorny, almost angry theme:
Now that isn't exactly what our elders would have called a "melody", is it? And yet, it is a melody. Just look. If I change it just a little — not change the notes, but only the highness or lowness of them, the theme comes out like this:
Now that sounds a bit less angry already, doesn't it? (Without all that leaping around from low to high to low again.) But I can make it seem even more normal, more old-fashioned, by putting old-fashioned chords underneath it, like this.
That could have been written by Liszt, or anybody, 100 years ago. But this is music of today:
and so Copland doesn't use those harmonies from long ago
and also he does make the theme jump furiously from one register to another, so that it does come out modern, angry and dogmatic. And as we play it for you now — the whole thing is less than two minutes long — I'd like you to try and feel like iron, stubborn and dogmatic, and see if this little piece doesn't completely satisfy that emotion you're feeling.
Don't clap. You're not supposed to. It's as if Aaron Copland were saying, "This is what I have to say, and I don't care if you agree with me or not." That's one side of Aaron Copland. But, as I said before, he has many different sides; and the rest of his pieces on this program are much friendlier ones, as you will see. And one thing they all have in common is American-ness. Don't forget that Aaron Copland was born in Brooklyn, which makes him a 200% American; and also that he was born exactly in 1900, the first year of this century, which makes him 200% a composer of our time, (Besides, it makes it so easy to remember how old he is; he's always just as old as the year: in 1920 he was 20, in 1940 he was 40, and now he's 60 in 1960. Isn't that a lucky break?) (TO PIANO)
Now the first of these American-roots pieces we're going to hear is a dance from a piece he wrote way back in 1925 — (TO AUDIENCE) How old was Copland then?
(AUDIENCE RESPONSE) That was when he was first making experiments in using jazz in symphonic music. This piece is called "MUSIC FOR THE THEATRE;" and the dance we're going to hear from it is called — "DANCE." I'm sure I don't have to explain anything to you about the jazz sounds in it; you'll hear them right off, plain as day, — as soon as those trumpets put on their jazz-mutes, and the drums start their syncopated rhythms, and the little high clarinet begins to squeak out this barrelhouse tune:
That's real tough big-city music. And to make it even more big-city-ish, Copland has stuck the old tune "East Side, West Side" into the music — you know it —
— only he's modernized the rhythms from a waltz to 5/8 time, so that it comes out like this;
Now did you also hear those funny little notes that were also going on over the tune?
That's another modern side to this music — sort of little on-purpose wrong notes that make you want to laugh. That's about as thorny as this piece ever gets. It's all meant to be fun — kind of like Coney Island music, or clown music; and I hope you find it as much fun as we do,
We've just had a jazzy example of Copland's music, so now let's turn to one that's just the opposite — very quiet and serious, but just as American, in another way. In 1940 Copland wrote a beautiful and famous score for a movie called "Our Town" — I'm sure many of you have seen it, or have maybe seen the original play. It's about life in a small New Hampshire town called Grover's Corners, where life is quiet and sweet and unhurried and very close to Nature, We're going to hear the opening music from that film; and if it makes you think of church, and hymn-tunes from long ago, well — you're thinking right, because that's just what he meant. This is another side of America, another root, far from the noisy big city we heard about before: this is the simple rural American life that is such an important part of our country.
Copland has often painted that side of America for us in his music — as in his famous ballet, APPALACHIAN SPRING, or in his opera THE TENDER LAND; but perhaps in this little piece from the film "Our Town" he has painted it best of all, because it seems so real, so quiet, and so deeply felt.*
Isn't that a lovely picture of American life - so different from that jazzy dance we heard before! Now we move on to an even differenter picture, just as American in its roots, but thousands of miles away, in the great West of our country. Copland seemed to be just as fascinated by the West — by its exciting history, its pioneer spirit, the tremendous size of its plains and its mountains — as he is by our big cities and small towns. He has written two very famous ballets about the West: BILLY THE KID and RODEO. We're going to hear now the final dance from RODEO, which is called "HOE-DOWN". I guess you all know what a rodeo is, but maybe you don't all know what a hoe-down is. It's a square dance, with all the trappings — fiddlers and callers and swingin' your partner. We don't have any callers here, or any partners to swing, but we sure do have fiddlers! Wait til you hear them —
Now we have a very special birthday surprise coming up. The great American baritone William Warfield is going to sing two of Copland's songs for us. These songs are not really original compositions, since they are old American folk-songs that almost everybody knows. But Copland has arranged them with his special style and orchestration and with such a personal understanding and love for them that they seem to come out as brand-new pieces by him. I don't know how he does it; it's part of the magic that goes on in this wonderful garden we are in today. Maybe we could say that that last "HOE DOWN" is like a big cactus in this garden, with great splashy red flowers blooming on its but these songs have other American roots, and they come out like little homey, familiar daisies or dandelions; only Copland's magic touch has given them new color and shape. The names of these two songs are: "A BOATMAN'S DANCE" and "I BOUGHT ME A CAT." Here is William Warfield.A BOATMAN'S DANCE (1:45)
BOUGHT ME A CAT (2:05)
And now we come to the big climax of our party; we're going to meet Aaron Copland himself, who will conduct one of his most famous pieces — "THE SALON MEXICO" - (EL SALON MEJICO) — which is one of his very friendliest compositions. Of course it has little thorns in it, here and there - certain so called "dissonant" chords, like these —
or certain tricky modern rhythms, like these
but they're all part of its being modern music, and they won't seem thorny at all when you hear them along with sweet Mexican melodies like this one:
You see, EL SALON MEXICO is the name of a dance-hall in Mexico City — sort of like our Roseland — which Copland visited once. He was so excited by what he heard and saw there that he wrote a piece about it.
And so I take tremendous personal pleasure in welcoming to this podium a great composer, a dear person, a true friend to youth, one who has guided and encouraged so many young people; including myself when I was just starting out. My thanks, our thanks, the thanks of all musicians and music-lovers all over the country, and all over the world. Happy birthday, Aaron Copland!COPLAND - EL SALON MEXICO
— Aaron Copland Conducting (APPLAUSE) END
© 1961, Amberson Holdings LLC.
All rights reserved.
Watch a video excerpt of "Aaron Copland Birthday Party"
Bernstein with composer, mentor and friend, Aaron Copland at Bernardsville, NJ. August 1945. Photographer unidentified.