Monday, February 28, 2011

Old American Songs program notes

Program notes for the upcoming March 6 performance at the Meyerson. These note are written by Jonathan Gentry, oboe.

Old American Songs
Aaron Copland
Born November 14th, 1900 in Brooklyn, New York
Died December 2nd, 1990 in Tarrytown, New York

Aaron Copland is a favorite among 20th century American composers. His best known works include the ballets Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, and Rodeo, and his Fanfare for the Common Man. Copland’s pieces often contain melodies of a simple, charming nature that characterizes the American style of composition in the mid-twentieth century. His style represents the core of American values, and could be described as celebratory of America’s past, present, and future.

Copland celebrates America’s diversity through his two sets of Old American Songs, and goes where few composers ventured before by tapping into the American heartland. By the time Copland wrote Old American Songs, he had already achieved great fame as a composer. He originally wrote them in 1950 and 1952 for voice and piano, and then arranged them for baritone and orchestra. Peter Pears (tenor) and Benjamin Britten (piano) played the premiere performance of Old American Songs on June 17th, 1950 at the Aldeburgh Festival in Suffolk, United Kingdom. The first set of Old American Songs was very well received after it was premiered, and was soon performed by many famous tenors and baritones of the time. It was so greatly enjoyed by audiences and performers all around that Copland decided to write another set in 1952. Tonight, the Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas will be singing the baritone solo in unison.

Copland arranged these 10 songs, drawing from completely different sources. In the first set of Old American Songs, “The Boatman’s Dance” is a minstrel show tune written by Daniel Decatur Emmett. The orchestral accompaniment -- particularly the violins -- mimics a minstrel banjo. “The Dodger” is a satirical political song from the 1884 presidential election, in which Grover Cleveland won over James G. Blaine. “Long Time Ago” is a sentimental ballad and an anonymous blackface tune. George Pope adapted the lyrics in 1837 and Charles Edward Horn set the words to music. “Simple Gifts” is the Shaker melody that Copland also used in his best-known ballet, Appalachian Spring. He arranged the Old American Songs version of the tune in a style closer to the original from the ballet. This enchantingly beautiful song has a straightforward melodic line that is passed from chorus to woodwinds and is accompanied by simple, hymn-like harmonies. The last song of the first set, “I Bought Me a Cat”, is a playful children’s nonsense song, and requires the singers to venture outside traditional vowels. Both the chorus and orchestra imitate the sounds of barnyard animals, resembling the well-known children’s song, “Old MacDonald”.
The second set of Old American Songs, like the first set, came from completely diverse sources. “Little Horses”, a children’s lullaby originating in the South, is based on a version of Lomax’s Folk Song U.S.A. “Zion’s Walls” is a revivalist song which Copland later used in his opera, The Tender Land, with lyrics credited to John G. McCurry. “The Golden Willow Tree” is a version of the familiar Anglo-American ballad called “The Golden Vanity” which Copland first heard on a recording for banjo and voice. “At the River” is a tender and beautiful 1865 hymn tune written by Reverend Robert Lowry. “Ching-a-Ring Chaw” is a minstrel song from the Harris Collection at Brown University. It finishes the Old American Songs with a catchy melody that repeats in an optimistic, jig-like fashion.
Copland’s Old American Songs is scored for two flutes (second doubling piccolo), oboe, two clarinets, bassoon, two horns, trumpet, trombone, harp, and strings.
Written by Jonathan Gentry, oboe

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