Tuesday, December 4, 2007


Copland did not compose an extensive repertory of choral music but this is a pleasant sampling which includes the then-premier recordings of Four Motets and Canticle of Freedom composed in 1921 and 1955 respectively.

The more widely-known Old American Songs was originally assembled by Copland for voice and piano and later set for voice and orchestra by the composer. The choral version of Old American Songs was arranged by Irving Fine, Raymond Wilding-White, and Glenn Koponen.

Michael Tilson Thomas has long been an able interpreter of Aaron Copland's works and, in fact, was hand-selected by the composer himself to conduct the chorus for these recordings. Copland had originally planned to handle the conducting chores himself but was too ill to participate.

Background information on this recording can be found in the scanned liner notes contained in the download. For a history and analysis of these compositions, see the comments.

Old American Songs, Set I (1950)
1. The Boatmen's Dance 3:03
2. The Dodger 2:05
3. Long Time Ago 3:10
4. Simple Gifts 1:21
5. I Bought Me A Cat 2:12

Old American Songs, Set II (1952)
6. The Little Horses 3:11
7. Zion's Walls 1:44
8. The Golden Willow Tree 3:20
9. At The River 2:43
10. Ching-A-Ring Chaw 1:33

11. Canticle Of Freedom (1955) 13:46

Four Motets (1921)
12. Help Us, O Lord 2:50
13. Thou, O Jehovah, Abideth Forever 2:29
14. Have Mercy On Us, O My Lord 4:11
15. Sing Ye Praises To Our King 1:41

Recorded in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, Utah in 1986.


Scoredaddy said...


Canticle of Freedom
The Canticle of Freedom is a big public statement in the tradition of Lincoln Portrait and Preamble for a Solemn Occasion. The work consists of three sections: a prologue for orchestra, a more urgent section also for orchestra, and a finale for chorus and orchestra. For his text, Copland used an excerpt from an epic poem by John Barbour ~c. 1320-1395) about Scotland's struggle for independence from England m the early fourteenth century, Book of the Deeds of the Illustrious Prince, the Late Lord King Robert de Bruce; he no doubt discovered it by way of Carlos Chavez's own setting, A! Fredome (1947), whose modern English adaptation by Willis Wager may have provided the basis for his own. Copland apparently called the piece a canticle not only to reflect the text's medieval provenance and psalmlike structure but to underline the sacred nature of freedom.
Whereas Lincoln Portrait and Preamble addressed the exigencies of World War II and the Cold War, respectively, the Canticle stared McCarthyism squarely in the face. Copland even joked about dedicating the work to his nemesis, Fred Busbey. One passage in particular gave him the opportunity to vent: "Nor he that aye have lived free / May know well the misery, / The anger, and the wretched doom / That is coupled to foul thralldom." In writing this work Copland also may have had the civil rights movement in mind, given the association of "freedom" with that struggle.
Although he had set some English Renaissance verse in 1923, the use of a Scottish medieval poem for this kind of vehicle proclaimed his desire to try something new; along with the Meredith setting, it can even be said to signal the end of an over thirty-year involvement with almost exclusively American materials. The Canticle's musical style itself seems related to Scottish idioms, including the "Scotch snap" (associated with the rhythm of the word "freedom") that imbues the entire score. Even more remarkable is the work's pungent evocations of medieval music, from its unusual colors and its quirky asymmetrical rhythms to its parallel fifths and austere counterpoint, including choral writing restricted to unison and two-voice textures.
This assimilation of medieval music was not incidental, for Copland carried it onward, if more subtly, to the Piano Fantasy and other late works; like the twelve-tone method, neomedievalism was a trend of the times. In such works, Copland accommodated medieval idioms to his own voice and personality, translating their bright sounds and rhythmic jags into the recognizably Coplandesque, including, in the Canticle, an ending even louder than Lincoln Portrait or the Preamble. Copland characteristically found in the Middle Ages more an era of earthy vigor than of pious retreat.
Even so, the Canticle projects a different, less confident tone from the optimism of Lincoln Portrait or the weathered hopefulness of the Preamble. Rather, it presents a face of wounded dignity and troubled defiance. And in some ways, this makes the work all the more courageous and perhaps all the more relevant to our own times.

Four Motets
Copland went on to complete Four Motets for a cappella mixed chorus in the fall of 1921; Nadia Boulanger expected her more advanced students to compose motets and a passacaglia as exercises in contrapuntal and formal discipline. Copland thought of these works as "student pieces," especially the Four Motets, which he did not publish until 1979, and then only with "mixed emotions." But they are more than mere pedagogical studies, and today both enjoy a place in the repertory.
Based freely on biblical passages, the motets feature two prayers for mercy ("Help Us, 0 Lord" and "Have Mercy on Us, 0 My Lord") and two songs of praise ("Thou, 0 Jehovah, Abideth Forever" and "Sing Ye Praises to Our King"). At the least, they are serviceable works that show, according to Phillip Ramey, "a surprising sureness and a certain sophistication." The suave choral writing seems particularly remarkable considering Copland's utter inexperience as a choral composer. "Those motets sound in the voices in a stunning manner," enthused Boulanger, who performed them regularly with her classes for decades, holding them up as a standard of contemporary choral writing to hundreds of young musicians from around the globe.
Although Julia Smith identified a distinct Greek mode for each of the motets, Copland claimed that he never gave much thought to the modes as such during his time with Boulanger; and, in fact, the music, eschewing pure modality, might more accurately be described as modal-chromatic. These pieces reflect, too, an affinity to, if not a conscious assimilation of, such varied sources as Stravinsky, Mussorgsky, Faure, Honegger, and Milhaud, as well as the music of the Renaissance; they also suggest connections to Jewish chant and American hymnody. The two songs of praise in particular anticipate Copland's mature works: "Thou, 0 Jehovah" looks ahead to his declamatory fanfare style, "Sing Ye Praises" to his folk song settings. But the motets seem rather pallid and stiff for Copland, though effective and appealing in their own way.


Analysis of Old American Songs forthcoming in future post.

lets said...

great blog!

thank you so much.