Coming back from his second year of conducting Boston Symphony Orchestra, Mr. Serge Koussevitzky, once again, brought new American composition to his Parisian audience. Last Friday at the Opera House, Mr. Aaron Copland’s Music for the Theatre had its French premiere in the opening concert of the sixth season of the Concert Koussevitzky.
Mr. Copland, a 26-year-old American composer, is a native of New York, who studied composition with Nadia Boulanger for four years during his stay in Paris since the age of 21. Currently living in his hometown, Mr. Copland is a member of the League of Composers of America and he is actively promoting American concert music. During this trip to Paris, Mr. Copland also attended the “Concert de Musique Américaine” held by Société Musicale Indépendante on May 5 in Salle Gaveau, where his piece Serenade for violin and cello was performed.
Knowing the composer’s personal connection with France and his active contributions to writing his own national music, I went to the concert with full interest and expectation of listening to the new and unique sound of American concert music. However, Mr. Copland’s Music for the Theatre was not much satisfactory. Despite the pervasiveness of various references to jazz throughout the composition, we heard more of the sound of Debussy, Milhaud and Stravinsky that strongly eclipsed the effort of the composer to approach an American quality. In fact, I believe that Mr. Copland’s music was not American, but truly French.
Five movements entitled “Prologue”, “Dance”, “Interlude”, “Burlesque” and “Epilogue” formed this chamber orchestra suite Music for the Theatre. Mr. Copland presented adequate references to the jazz music, from which the audience was able to recognize the composer’s effort to address the American sound. For instance, the loose rhythm and flutter-tonguing of the trumpet fanfare opening the “Prologue” reminded the listeners of jazz improvisation. Also, in “Dance”, the unevenness of syncopated rhythm filled up the whole movement with a strong American flavor. Surely, it was hard to deny the strong emphasis on jazz in this piece, but how were these approaches to jazz different from that of French composers? In fact, listening to Milhaud’s La Création du Monde, I actually found the origin from which Mr. Copland learned, if not duplicated, the methods to incorporate his national sound into a composition of concert music: instrumentation and rhythm. The similar technique was also well presented in Stravinsky and Satie’s music, L’Histoire du Soldat and Parade for instance. Therefore, if Mr. Copland was just writing what French composers have been writing, how could we say his music was “American”?
Indeed, underneath the flamboyant jazz references, it was the French music that served as the foundation upon which Mr. Copland’s Music for the Theatre built. In “Prologue”, even though the instrumentation referred to that of jazz, the clarinet solo played a tune of pentatonic scale, from which I heard the sound of Debussy. In “Dance”, the uneven rhythm of jazz music was all over the place, but beneath the superficial references was the ostinato and the pulse of Stravinsky that structure the movement. Then I heard Ravel in “Interlude”, Milhaud in “Burlesque” and Debussy again in “Epilogue”.  The jazz references may impress the audience immediately, but any musically educated listener would be able to realize the fact that the sound and technique of French music essentially formed the whole piece.
In fact, it is fair to say that Mr. Copland writes good French music, considering his personal connection with Paris and background with French music. Specifically in Music for the Theatre, this young composer proved his talent and maturity in writing music that features an elegant French aesthetics. For instance, Mr. Copland opened the third movement “Interlude” with a clarinet solo playing a clear and simple melody that carried through the entire movement; along with the pure melody were the sophisticated interactions between voices in addition to the transparent general structure of the whole movement. If Mr. Copland were French, he would be received with much appreciation for his compositional genius and fine taste.
Regardless of the unexpectedly absent uniqueness of American music in Music for the Theatre, Mr. Copland’s French compositional style appealed to the French audience who appreciated the elegant melody and sophisticated structure in the music. Besides Mr. Copland’s piece, Till Eulenspiegel by Richard Strauss, Padmávati by Albert Roussel and Pins de Rome by Ottorino Respighi were also on the program that day.
Cocteau, Jean, The Cock and the Harlequin, 2nd ed.. Translated by Rollo Myers. London: Verso, 1926.
Copland, Aaron and Perlis, Vivian, Copland: 1900 through 1942. New York: St.Martin’s/Marek, 1984.
Downes, Olin, “Music: Koussevitzky in Modern Music,” New York Times, November 29, 1925.
Downes, Olin, “Music: Boston Symphony Orchestra,” New York Times, January 08, 1926.
Le Flem, Paul, “A la Société Musicale Indépendante: Un Concert de Musique Américaine,” Comoedia, May 10, 1926.
Maudru, Pierre, “A l’Opéra: Premiere Concert Koussevitzky,” Comoedia, May 24, 1926.
Messing, Soctt, Neoclassicism in Music: From the Genesis of the Concept through the Schoenberg/Stravinsky Polemic. Ann Arbor: UMI Press, 1988.
Murchison, Gayle, The American Stravinsky: The style and Aesthetics of Copland’s New American Music, the Early Works, 1921-1928. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2012.
P.R., “Copland Suite at Symphony Concert: First Public Performance of ‘Music for the Theatre’,” Boston Daily Globe, November 21, 1925.
“Serge Koussevitzky: Concert Programs, Paris 1921-28,” Classical Net, accessed November 19, 2015, http://www.classical.net/~music/guide/society/krs/programs/index.php.
Stravinsky, Igor, “Some Words About My Octet,” in Music in the Western World: A History in Documents. Edited by Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin, 2nd ed.. Belmont: Thomson, 2008.
 In the program of 1925 when Koussevitzky firstly came back from Boston, the conductor brought Henry Eichheim’s Légende Chinoise to the first concert of the season. See the concert program on: “Serge Koussevitzky: Concert Programs, Paris 1921-28,” Classical Net.
 See more on: Murchison, The American Stravinsky, 98-102.
 “There is a good deal of jazz, some of Stravinsky, some Debussy, a little Ravel and many classics back of the composition of “Music for the Theatre”, “Copland Suite at Symphony Concert,” Boston Daily Globe, November 21, 1925.
 About Copland’s experience in Paris, including his study and relationship with Nadia Boulanger, admiration to Stravinsky, and attendances to the Concert Koussevitzky since 1921, see more on: Copland and Perlis, Copland, 53-98.
 Here the implication is that French music is characterized by simple and elegant melody, as well as purity and clear musical structure (French neoclassicism). See more on: Cocteau, The Cock and the Harlequin, 14-20; Messing, Neoclassicism in Music: Chp 4, Chp 5; Stravinsky, “Some Words About My Octet,” in Music in the Western World, 388-390;