Music for the Theatre
flute/piccolo, oboe/English horn, clarinet/Eb clarinet, bassoon, 2 trumpets, trombone, percussion, piano, strings
notes by Chris Myers
Composed 1925. First performance: November 20, 1925, Boston Symphony Orchestra. Sergei Koussevitzky, conductor.
In 1924, Aaron Copland returned home to America after years studying in France with the famous composition teacher Nadia Boulanger. While there, he met composers from countries throughout Europe. It struck him that, while one could immediately identify music as “French”, “German”, or “Russian”, there was no “American” music. When Boulanger commissioned a work for organ and orchestra from him, he set out deliberately to create such a sound. The resulting work, the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, was certainly well-written, but Copland realized that his attempts at adapting European modernism would never lead to music with which his fellow countrymen would identify.
The incorporation of jazz elements into classical music wasn’t entirely new—Stravinsky and Milhaud had made attempts, and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue premiered in 1924— but Copland realized that this path might lead to the sound he sought. His opportunity to experiment and explore this approach came when Serge Koussevitzky arranged for the League of Composers to commission a piece from Copland.
The resulting Music for the Theatre was a five-movement suite exploring several different moods while trying very consciously to create a new national sound. “I was anxious to write a work that would immediately be recognized as American in character,” he later recalled. While no particular story or plot was involved, Copland said that he chose the title because “the music seemed to suggest a certain theatrical atmosphere.”
There is very little counterpoint in Music for the Theatre. Drawing on the conventions of jazz and popular song, Copland chose instead to create a texture consisting primarily of single-line melodies over chordal accompaniment. A drumroll at the beginning of the Prologue leads to the solo trumpet’s introduction of the first theme. After a second theme from the oboe, the music develops in standard sonata form.
The Dance begins with a sassy bassoon solo juxtaposed against bluesy retorts from the orchestra. The pop song “East Side, West Side” even makes an appearance. An Interlude follows, in which we get three “verses” of a lyrical melody passed throughout the wind instruments as the strings provide harmonic support. The Burlesque embraces the rough-hewn and bawdy character of its namesake theatrical genre, with energetic melodies played over a steady bass line. The suite concludes with an Epilogue reprising the mood and melodic material of the Prologue.
Though Music for the Theatre is not frequently performed today, it set Copland on the path of discovery that would lead him to his greatest and most popular works. It is arguably the first piece with that distinctly “Copland sound”, and his embrace of jazz and popular music in this work would later lead to pieces such as Rodeo, Billy the Kid, and Appalachian Spring—music which is certainly immediately identifiable as “American.”
Copyright © 2014 Chris Myers. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.