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.
An Outdoor Overture had its genesis as a commission from Alexander Richter, the music director at the High School for Music and Art (now LaGuardia High School) in New York City. Richter was looking for music that would appeal to American youth. Copland responded with a brightly optimistic, wide-open triumph of Americana, in versions for both orchestra and band. It was premiered in December 1938 (ironically, indoors) at the high school. Copland describes how the piece progresses:
The piece starts in a large and grandiose manner with a theme that is immediately developed as a long solo for the trumpet with a string pizzicato accompaniment. A short bridge passage in the woodwinds leads imperceptibly to the first theme of the allegro section, characterized by repeated notes. Shortly afterwards, these same repeated notes, played broadly, give us a second, snappy march-like theme, developed in a canon form. There is an abrupt pause, a sudden decrescendo, and the third, lyric theme appears, first in the flute, then the clarinet, and finally, high up in the strings. Repeated notes on the bassoon seem to lead the piece in the direction of the opening allegro. Instead, a fourth and final theme evolves another march theme, but this time less snappy, and with more serious implications. There is a build-up to the opening grandiose introduction again, continuing with the trumpet solo melody, this time sung by all the strings in a somewhat smoother version. A short bridge section based on steady rhythm brings a condensed recapitulation of the allegro section. As a climactic moment all the themes are combined. A brief coda ends the work on the grandiose note of the beginning.
Copland’s greatest works started to appear immediately on the heels of this piece. He even interrupted work on Billy the Kid, the first of his famous Americana-themed ballets, to write An Outdoor Overture. It is thus a window into an important period in his career, as he developed the musical language that would be associated both with him and with the broader idea of Americana in classical music in the following decades.
The Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra plays the band version An Outdoor Overture:
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.
I’ve played An Outdoor Overture twice with Columbia University Wind Ensemble (2003 and 2007) and once with Columbia Summer Winds (2003).