Program Notes: Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson by Dr. Craig Timberlake

Program Notes: Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson by Dr. Craig Timberlake

In any discussion of twentieth-century American composers, the names of Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson are inevitably linked. Their long and sometimes frosty friendship began in 1921, when they found themselves in France as students of Nadia Boulanger, the well-regarded teacher of so many American composers over the following two decades. Highlights of the Copland–Thomson connection happily can now be traced accurately and in detail thanks to recent biographies: Aaron Copland by Howard Pollack (1999) and Virgil Thomson by Anthony Tommasini (1997).

Thomson was born November 25, 1896, and Copland November 14, 1900. Gloriæ Dei Cantores, in keeping with its mission to preserve through recordings both major and minor masterpieces of American choral music, is pleased to acknowledge the Copland centenary and belatedly that of his friend and contemporary, one of America’s “young men of Promise,” about whom Copland wrote confidently in 1926:

“At its best, his work displays a melodic invention of no mean order and a most subtle rhythmic sense growing out of a fine feeling for prosody. Certainly Thomson has not entirely found himself as yet. One awaits with more than usual curiosity to see what he will do in the future.” —Modern Music, March–April 1926.

What Copland himself did after 1926 is of immediate interest as we contemplate his major choral composition In the Beginning (1947)—particularly as the very qualities he saw in Thomson twenty years earlier are seen here to be his own. Copland chose his creation text from Genesis (King James Version), one he had examined earlier in the making of Appalachian Spring with Martha Graham. In an astonishing feat of composition, he set thirty-eight verses of text verbatim to create a 16-minute work for mezzo-soprano and mixed chorus a cappella. The result has been described by musicians as everything from a large rondo to a through-composed movement. Copland’s biographer, Pollack, is right when he asserts that “all the music derives from the soloist’s opening unaccompanied phrase, even more specifically, from the single gesture ‘In the beginning’.” Profound study will confirm Pollack’s extraordinary statement. One can begin with the more obvious examples of Copland’s text painting and penetrate deeper with his manipulation of motive and expansion of recurrent melodic patterns. Even though not a musician, an attentive listener can grasp these musical events and the pleasure they stimulate simply by concentrating intently on the text and its meaning. Therein lies the genius of a composer of vocal music and the genius of Copland which leads Pollack to conclude, “In the Beginning remains a highly moving and personal account of the biblical creation and an acknowledged masterpiece of the choral repertory.”....... Keep Reading. 


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