These notes will not necessarily repeat what the presenter says in the programme. They are designed to enhance the listening experience by focusing in more detail on a particular work or genre that is featured in the programme.Sign up and get the Discovering Music Listening Notes sent by email
The Listening Notes are prepared by John Arkell. The views expressed are his and unless specifically stated are not those of the BBC.
Work in Focus: El Salon Mexico by Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
‘Music that is born complex is not inherently better or worse than music that is born simple’
GENRE: Ballet score
American Composers of the Twentieth Century
Aaron Copland fits into a group of significant American composers of the twentieth century who in their own individual ways did much to enhance the musical reputation of the United States. These men embraced different musical styles and idioms - from neo-romanticism to jazz on to serialism and then the post 1945 avant-garde group of minimalist composers, some of whom still flourish today.
Charles Ives (1874-1954) was one of the most innovative composers of his time and can be regarded as America’s first composer. Most of his compositions were written before 1920 and were inspired by American landscapes, historical events and civic traditions. There were five symphonies and the last had such movements as Washington’s Birthday, Decoration Day, Fourth of July and Thanksgiving Day. He also composed sets of variations including Variation on America for organ, and wrote 20 studies for piano as well as 2 sonatas. There were also some 114 songs in his output.
The best known and popular New York composer was George Gershwin (1898-1937). He was noted as one of history’s best songwriters and worked with Tin Pan Alley and the Broadway theatres. His works were influenced heavily by jazz and were universally popular. From 1919 onwards he wrote his own Broadway musicals. They include Lady be good (1924), Oh Kay (1926) Strike up the band (1927), Funny face (1927), Girl Crazy (1930) and Of thee I sing (1931).Gershwin then went on to write equally successful film scores. In 1924 he was commissioned to write the famous Rhapsody in Bluefor piano and jazz ensemble. The success of this work led to a commission for the Piano Concerto in F (1926),the orchestral tone poem An American in Paris and the world famous opera Porgy and Bess (1935).This work was set in the black community of the deep south and used folk music and rhythms. The frequently performed song Summertime comes from this work.
Samuel Barber (1910-1981) avoided the Americanism of Copland‘s music but rather looked back in time to the Romantic tradition of European composers. His first mature pieces were Dover Beach (1931) for baritone and string quartet, the Cello Sonata and the Serenade for String Quartet. His style in these works was lyrical and full of Romantic expressiveness. His mid-period compositions included the First Symphony and String Quartet (the slow movement being the famous Adagio for Strings). Barber also composed an opera called Vanessaand the ballet Medea (1946).Post war works featured a cello concerto (1945), a piano sonata, and a whole host of songs and sundry other works. His style remained neo-romantic and he shunned new innovations of the time, such as jazz.
Elliot Carter (b. 1908) describes himself as a radical ‘having a nature that leads me to perpetual revolt’. Following the death of Copland, Elliot assumed the position of the main figure in twentieth century American music. Early works included Variations for Orchestra (1954), Concerto for Orchestraand the Third String Quartet (1971). His style favoured complex polyrhythmic works such as in theSymphony of Three Orchestras (1976-7), the Penhode for five instrumental quartets (1984) and the Triple Duo (1982). The music was experimental and resulted in a style that was complex yet underpinned with a musical logic of simplicity. Later works included his Oboe Concerto and a Violin Concerto. There were many other instrumental works as well as choral music.
Aaron Copland (1900-1990). Copland’s life spanned most of the twentieth century and he was the most influential American composer of his time. His parents were Russian Jews who had been successful storekeepers in Brooklyn. In 1920, he studied composition with Nadia Boulanger and immersed himself in the creative musical culture of Paris in the 1920s. On his return to New York, Copland divided his time between teaching and composing and set up a series of new music concerts in New York.
Copland believed that music should be accessible and he gave it a specifically American flavour by incorporating folk and jazz elements. The ballet El salon Mexico (1936)was his first major work and following this came other works on American themes, such as Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo and Appalachian Spring (1944).
In addition to these great American ballet scores, Copland also composed film scores including Of Mice and Men (1939), Our Town (1940), The Real Pony (1948) and The Heiress (1949). Other works from this period include Quiet City (1939), A Lincoln Portrait (1942) and Fanfare for the Common Man. For solo piano there was a set of Piano Variations (1930), the Piano Sonata (1941) and the Violin Sonata (1943).
The post-war works were far more abstract in style (and perhaps for that reason, were less successful!)Copland experimented with serialist techniques in the Piano Quartet (1950). The large scale orchestral Music for a Great City (1964),his flute quartet Threnody in Memoriam Stravinsky (1971)and the opera The Tender Landare the most memorable.
From 1940 - 65 Copland was Head of Composition at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood and also taught at Harvard University. In later life he received many honours including the Pulitzer Prize.
Later twentieth century American composers – The Minimalists
Worthy of mention are the post 1945 avant-garde minimalist composers that came into prominence in the 1970s. The principal composers were La Monte Young, Terry Riley (b. 1935) Steve Reich (b. 1936), Phillip Glass (b.1937) and John Adams (b.1946). All these composers experimented with ostinato patterns altered gradually by variations in time. The musical principles feature short motifs (cells) that repeat over and over with slow change or evolution brought about by note addition (or subtraction) techniques.
The use of phasing (moving in and out of synchronisation) of different parts is another key technique discovered by Reich in 1966.
In recent years, the music has become very commercial and Adams, Reich and Glass have all written successful film scores.
Notes on the Music
Copland’s trip to Mexico
When Copland visited Mexico in 1932 in the company of Carlos Chavez, they stopped at a rather seedy and riotous dance hall called El Salon Mexico and the crush and mingling of people there clearly made an impression and fascinated Copland. As he said
“it wasn’t the music that I heard there, or the dances that attracted me,
so much as the spirit of the place.”
This accounts for the fact that Copland does not quote from the music he heard in the dance hall, but from existing folk songs.
El Salón México is a symphonic composition in one movement lasting just 10 minutes in which the composer uses Mexican folk song melodies. The work is a musical depiction of A Popular Type Dance Hall in Mexico City. Copland began the work in 1932 and completed it in 1936. The Mexico Symphony Orchestra gave the first performance and the piece was premiered in the United States in 1938.
Although Copland visited Mexico early in the 1930s, he based this work not on songs he heard there, but rather on written sheet music for at least four Mexican folk songs that he had obtained: El Palo Verde, La Jesusita, El Mosco, and El Malacate. The powerful refrain that appears in the piece three times stems from El Palo Verde.
Critics have variously described the piece as containing two, three, or four parts, but many listeners find that it moves seamlessly from one theme to another with no clear internal boundaries. You must judge for yourself!
The various characteristics of the elements in the work have been highlighted below.
Melody: Copland uses Mexican folk songs originally by Ruben Campos and Frances Toor. These are flamboyant melodies full of character and use exciting driving rhythms. They also feature constantly changing metres giving a fluid sense to the contours of the folk melody. The melodies themselves are largely diatonic and in major keys.
Rhythm: Extensive use of mixed metres and syncopations (off beat rhythms) throughout the work.
Significant rhythms include
1.cross rhythms going over the beat e.g. in 3/4 time written as 4 quavers then 3 quavers (the last beamed over the bar line) two crotchets then a final quaver tied over bar line to a crotchet. etc.
2. syncopated - off beat rhythms
3. push rhythms. This is where the instrument sounds a quaver before the main beat e.g. first quaver tied note of the piece in the brass parts come just before the third beat.
4. additive rhythms. These appear in the middle to last part of the piece and are characterised typically by dividing quaver beats up as 3+3+2. There can be longer patterns based on this idea.
In addition to this, the time signatures change frequently and often there are passages where they change every bar!
Harmony: The harmony is relatively straightforward and is in major keys and is diatonic. The sections of the piece are marked by changes of key and these are quite abrupt and the music simply shifts from one major key to the next. Copland also uses quirky ‘wrong note’ harmony to suggest the amateur and rustic nature of the Mexican dances. At figure 2, near the beginning of the piece the bassoons accompanying chords contain clashing A sharps against B naturals!
In many other places, Copland spices up his harmony with added notes, such as seconds, sevens and ninths.
Texture: The musical textures are complex and constantly changing from the full orchestra stating the first tune in unison to each section of the orchestra on its own. There is much use of passing the melodic parts through different instruments of the orchestra and also of dialoguing between different instrumental families.
There is by contrast the chamber like feel to the slower section with solo strings and wood wind. The overriding musical texture in this work is melody with accompaniment (homophony) although there is the odd moment of unaccompanied solo (monophony) such as the clarinet solo at figure 19.
Another common texture is the use of octaves such as the tune played by the violins (and sometimes doubled in octaves by woodwind or brass)
Pitch: The large scale orchestra allows for a wide range to be exploited. The treble pitch has extremely high notes for the piccolo, whilst the low bass registers are filled by bass clarinet, double bassoon, and tuba.
Unpitched percussion add a real sense of rhythmic drive to the music.
Structure: One long movement containing four sections relating to each of the Mexican songs. The work has key changes to mark out the sections but has no breaks, ends of section or pauses. The tempo changes to help to signify the new sections of the music.
Instrumentation: Large symphony orchestra incorporating:
Piccolo Clarinet in Eb
Clarinets I and II in Bb
Bassoons I and II
4 French Horns in F
Trumpets I and II in C
Trumpet III in C
Percussion (military drum, other drums, Chinese blocks, wood blocks, cymbals and gong)