Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is one of the titans of American art music. A native New Yorker, he went to France at age 21 and became the first American to study with the legendary Nadia Boulanger. His Organ Symphony, written for Boulanger, provided his breakthrough into composition stardom. After experimenting with many different styles, he became best known for his idiomatic treatment of Americana, leaving behind such chestnuts as The Tender Land (1954), Billy The Kid (1938), and Appalachian Spring (1944). This last piece won Copland the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1945. He was also an acclaimed conductor and writer.
Emblems is the only piece that Copland originally wrote for a large band (although he arranged several of his own orchestral compositions for band, including An Outdoor Overture, A Lincoln Portrait, and Variations on a Shaker Melody, to name a few). He describes its origin:
In May, 1963, I received a letter from Keith Wilson, President of the College Band Directors National Association, asking me to accept a commission from that organization to compose a work for band. He wrote: ‘The purpose of this commission is to enrich the band repertory with music that is representative of the composer’s best work, and not one written with all sorts of technical or practical limitations.’ That was the origin of Emblems. I began work on the piece in the summer of 1964 and completed it in November of that year. It was first played at the CBDNA National Convention in Tempe, Arizona, on December 18, 1964, by the Trojan Band of the University of Southern California, conducted by William Schaefer.
Keeping Mr. Wilson’s injunction in mind, I wanted to write a work that was challenging to young players without overstraining their technical abilities. The work ist tripartite in form: slow-fast-slow, with the return of the first part varied. Embedded in the quiet, slow music the listener may hear a brief quotation of a well known hymn tune, ‘Amazing Grace‘, published by William Walker in The Southern Harmony in 1835. Curiously enough, the accompanying harmonies had been conceived first, without reference to any tune. It was only a chance of perusal of a recent anthology of old ‘Music in America’ that made me realize a connection existed between my harmonies and the old hymn tune.
An emblem stands for something – it is a symbol. I called the work Emblems because it seemed to me to suggest musical states of being: noble or aspirational feelings, playful or spirited feelings. The exact nature of these emblematic sounds must be determined for himself by each listener.”
Emblems is not Copland’s most accessible piece. The harmonies that accompany “Amazing Grace” are unabashedly dissonant major/minor chords. At times the texture is so bare that only a triangle is playing. Yet the outer sections possess Copland’s signature grandiosity, and energy courses persistently through the middle section, which even suggests a Latin American party atmosphere at times.
William Revelli conducts Emblems in a very early performance (1965) at the University of Michigan:
There’s so much more to read about Emblems. See especially the Wind Repertory Project, Classical Archives, and the US Marine Band. Also, check out the performance guide (for players) courtesy of the Army Field Band.
Copland has a huge presence on the internet, thus this site will feature only the main portals into his work. Please click far beyond the sites listed here for a complete idea of Copland’s footprint on the web.
Fanfare for Aaron Copland – a blog with information on the composer, extraordinarily useful links, and some downloadable versions of old LP recordings. This is the place to explore the several links beyond the main site.
New York Times archive of Copland-related material. Includes reviews of his music and books as well as several fascinating articles that he wrote.
Copland Centennial (from 2000) on NPR.
Emblems was a senior choice for clarinetist Mike Haskell and percussionist Morgan Rhodes, both class of 2008. It was on the bleeding edge of our technical abilities, but it was well worth the effort.