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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 11 In Search of the “Real” America
Richard Taruskin

“Anglo-folklorism” reached its peak, and exerted its maximum impact on the American musical mainstream, in three ballets that Copland wrote between 1938 and 1944, the most successful works of their kind since Stravinsky’s prewar ballets for Diaghilev. They finally made Copland, in a succession that can be traced from Gershwin through Harris, the “exemplary” American composer, the commonly accepted (if not quite undisputed) standard bearer of musical Americanism.

The first of them, Billy the Kid, was commissioned by Lincoln Kirstein (1907–96), the director of a company called Ballet Caravan, who also wrote the scenario. It portrays the title character (real name William H. Bonney, 1859–81), a notorious New Mexico cattle rustler and murderer, in his legendary light as a Robin Hood (or Joe Hill) figure, his violent death at the hands of a former friend turned lawman thus becoming a martyrdom. For this ballet “Western,” Copland mined the contents of several anthologies of cowboy songs that Kirstein had supplied him with. The Copland scholar Jessica Burr has demonstrated the highly imaginative way Copland fashioned his own thematic material from the songs, sometimes leaving them recognizable though changed, sometimes absorbing them into the fabric of his own music so that without the evidence of the source books they would pass undetected.82

Copland’s basic source was The Lonesome Cowboy, a compilation edited by John I. White and George Shackley (New York, 1930); but as Burr discovered, he compared the settings there with others in his possession and was open to influences not only from the original tunes but from the various arrangements as well. A case in point is Copland’s adaptation of “Git Along, Little Dogies,” one of the most famous cowboy ballads (already used by Thomson), for the ballet’s opening scene, “Street in a Frontier Town,” in which Billy’s mother is shot and he, avenging her, embarks on his life of crime.

In Ex. 11-21, the setting from Lonesome Cowboy is set, first, alongside a rather fancy harmonization of the tune from the Lomax collection by Oscar J. Fox (a separate sheet music publication in Copland’s archive at the Library of Congress), and, second, alongside Copland’s adaptation. Traces of both arrangements are visible in Copland’s tune. The big downward leap of a ninth, Burr suggests, is Copland’s response to the shout on “Whoopee” in Lonesome Cowboy, indicated with diamond noteheads to represent the approximate pitch (as the editors write) of “a man-sized ‘Whoopee-e-e’”; and the dissonant seconds in Copland’s setting are a harsher version of the appoggiaturas in Fox’s accompaniment. (That Copland’s first semitone clash, E♯/F♯, approximates a “blue note” as conventionally rendered by piano arrangers may well have attracted his ear, despite the resulting stylistic miscegenation.)

The very opening of Billy the Kid, with its striking “white key” or strictly diatonic dissonances, set another sort of standard for Copland’s “prairie” idiom. This one reached a peak in Rodeo, Copland’s second ballet Western, commissioned in 1942 for the choreographer Agnes de Mille by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, the successor organization to the Diaghilev Ballet. A nearly plotless, “classical” ballet or divertissement on a cowboy theme, it is devoid of the political subtexts that characterized Copland’s Popular Front period. (What plot there is concerns the efforts of a hapless cowgirl to attract a beau; some found subtexts of sexual domination here, others have found parallels with the “absent” generation of American men in the first year of wartime).

Prairie Neonationalism

ex. 11-21a “Git Along, Little Dogies” as transcribed by John Lomax

Prairie Neonationalism

ex. 11-21b “Git Along, Little Dogies” as arranged by White and Shackley in The Lonesome Cowboy

The use of folklore is more pervasive in Rodeo, a simpler score, than in Billy the Kid, and for the most part the familiar tunes are allowed to appear in their entirety and (as Howard Pollock puts it) “in relatively traditional settings.” For that very reason, the score’s slow section, “Corral Nocturne” (Ex. 11-22), the one extended portion in which no folk tunes are known to be quoted, takes on an extra significance, since its style is completely consistent with the folklore-saturated sections of the ballet, showing to what an extent Copland had absorbed the folk idiom into his own increasingly distinctive and influential Americanist style.

The music is a veritable tour de force of simplicity and “accessibility,” and to that extent could be said to keep faith with the Popular Front’s call for a music that resisted the mannerisms and complications of elite modernism. Awareness of the extent to which Copland had formerly displayed those mannerisms makes his compliance with the call seem a knowing one. But to an extent unmatched by any of his contemporaries, Copland succeeded in maintaining both stylistic individuality and a high level of interesting technical detail (both of them prime modernist values) without compromising the “naturalness” and easy comprehensibility of his new style. In his hands, the new simplicity seemed an innovation.

Prairie Neonationalism

ex. 11-21c “Git Along, Little Dogies” as harmonized by Oscar J. Fox

Prairie Neonationalism

ex. 11-21d “Git Along, Little Dogies” as adapted by Aaron Copland in Billy the Kid

Prairie Neonationalism

ex. 11-22 Aaron Copland, Rodeo, “Corral nocturne” in the composer’s piano score, beginning

The reasons for that freshness of effect are elusive (a longstanding critical riddle, in fact) but some of them can perhaps be accounted for in terms of “voicing” (i.e., chord spacing) and orchestration, while others seem to reflect a flair for the “neonationalist” assimilation of folklore at a very basic level of style (which, as we recall, was Stravinsky’s secret, too). The strictness with which C-major diatonicism is maintained is in itself a bit shocking, given the time. Out of fifty-three measures, only sixteen have any sharps or flats; and when accidentals are present they usually signal quick forays into new key areas that are maintained as strictly as the original one. (Only twice, in mm. 14 and 52 at opposite ends of the piece, are there direct chromatic inflections.)

It had surely been a long time since a piece of modern music had begun with six bars of nothing but Is, IVs, and Vs. The first modification on the scheme consists of Stravinskyesque superimpositions (e.g., I over IV in m. 7) that maintain diatonic purity while introducing some harmonic novelty and a whiff of counterpoint. At 2, when the music from mm. 3–6 is given a varied reprise, the “wide open” spacing recalls Harris’s “heliotropic” manner, already typed as “American”; in combination with the primary-colors harmonization it became a Copland trademark. The most characteristic and convincing touch comes in m. 9 and at analogous points thereafter. The introduction at these points of “mixolydian” B♭s to neutralize the dominant chord recapitulates the tonal progression of “Git Along Little Dogies” (most clearly seen in John Lomax’s transcription, Ex. 11-21a)— as telling an example of “neonationalism” as Stravinsky had ever milked from Russian folklore. The source tune is nowhere to be found, but its style has been absorbed as bedrock.

The two-part counterpoint at 4 (Ex. 11-23) also recalls Stravinsky’s earlier achievement in the way it posits a strict diatonic style in which parallel fifths and even sevenths are made to sound “correct.” That invented yet compelling neoprimitivist style reached its fullest development in Copland’s third Americanist ballet, Appalachian Spring (1944), composed for the eminent “modern dance” choreographer Martha Graham, in which a set of variations on the Shaker hymn ‘“Tis the Gift to Be Simple” became something of an emblem for Copland’s uncomplicated yet technically sophisticated manner. (It was widely played in memoriam after his death at the age of ninety.)

Prairie Neonationalism

ex. 11-23 Aaron Copland, Rodeo, “Corral nocturne” in the composer’s piano score, mm. 33–37

The most concentrated (and equally emblematic) assertion of Copland’s neonationalism was Fanfare for the Common Man (Ex. 11-24), composed in 1942, the first year of World War II so far as America was concerned, as part of a series of nineteen orchestral fanfares commissioned by the English conductor Eugene Goossens (1893–1962), then heading the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, as concert-openers during the wartime seasons. Copland’s, performed in March 1943, was the only contribution to the series—which included compositions by Hanson, Harris, Thomson, Piston, Cowell, Deems Taylor, Milhaud (then living as a refugee in California), and Daniel Gregory Mason—to survive the circumstances of its commission and join the repertory.

Prairie NeonationalismPrairie Neonationalism

ex. 11-24 Aaron Copland, Fanfare for the Common Man, mm. 1–21

The theme, given out unharmonized at first by three trumpets in unison, and then with three horns in two-part counterpoint, takes the homespun “wide open” style to extremes. Absolutely diatonic and contoured in great soaring arches, it is projected in its solo statement over nearly two octaves, and in its duet form over nearly three. The trumpet part has only four instances of conjunct motion, the horn part none. Phrases typically end in wide descents through multiple skips. The counterpoint is entirely homorhythmic and proceeds entirely by similar motion. The closest the two parts ever get to one another is a perfect fourth. For the most part they sound sixths, tenths, fifths, and—just as “consonant” in its treatment—a seventh.

These are the traits—mined in equal measure from Western (or otherwise rural) folklore and from the wide intervals and angular contours of Copland’s earlier modernistic style—that at last began to communicate a generic (or generalized) “America” to concert audiences both at home and abroad. Needless to say, they were quickly copied not only by other composers of concert music, but also by film and commercial composers in need of methods of instantaneous evocation. In this way they quickly became a stereotype, and “Coplandesque” became an adjective denoting a certain range of moods—pastoral, wistful, sanguine, domesticated—that in turn conjured up a comforting vision of home to depression-era and wartime America.

The most overtly patriotic use to which Copland put his “prairie” style was A Lincoln Portrait, yet another product of the banner year 1942. It was commissioned by the conductor André Kostelanetz, a specialist in summertime “pops” concerts, shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and was first performed in Cincinnati in May. It uses two very familiar songs: Stephen Foster’s Camptown Races (1850) to lend period flavor to the quick middle section, and On Springfield Mountain (or, The Pesky Sarpent), from the Damon collection, a natural for evoking Lincoln both because Lincoln had made his political name in Springfield, Illinois, and because the text of the song laments the loss of a man cut down, as Lincoln was, in the prime of life.

After the middle section, the solemn opening returns, this time accompanied by a speaker reading quotations from Lincoln’s speeches chosen for their bearing on the predicament of a nation thrust into a military conflict that would test its resolve and its democratic principles. Inevitably, the last of these extracts (Ex. 11-25) is the peroration of the most famous Lincoln speech of all, the Gettysburg Address, accompanied by a trumpet recalling On Springfield Mountain, the opening phrase of which coincides with one of the phrases of “Taps,” the bugle call sounded at military funerals. When the speaker finishes, the orchestra provides a coda that develops the same multivalent phrase from the folk song into an epitome of “heliotropism.”

“I’ve stolen your thunder,”83 Copland joked to Earl Robinson, who had followed up on his Abe Lincoln of 1936 with a Lincoln cantata of his own, called Lonesome Train, in that same early wartime season of 1942. Like Copland’s, Robinson’s also contains parts for speaking voices (six of them, plus eight solo singers and chorus). But where Robinson’s effort remained within the sectarian confines of “progressive” and labor circles, Copland’s became a staple of the mainstream concert repertory. That does nothing to alter the fact that A Lincoln Portrait was as much a product of the Popular Front esthetic as Lonesome Train, even if (as Howard Pollock points out) Lincoln exerted an appeal for all Americans, “especially as a symbol of democracy in action” that “transcended partisan politics.”84

Prairie NeonationalismPrairie Neonationalism

ex. 11-25 Aaron Copland, A Lincoln Portrait, mm. 257–264

That, of course, was exactly the reason for his partisan exploitation. Lincoln was the radical left’s passport to general acceptability; and this was even more the case after 1941, when the United States and Soviet Russia unexpectedly found themselves allied in a war against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. During the war, and for a short while thereafter, friendship toward the Soviet Union was official American policy (even as, between 1939 and 1941, friendship toward Nazi Germany was official Soviet policy). One of the fanfares Goossens commissioned for the Cincinnati Symphony, by Deems Taylor, was called “Fanfare for Russia,” and it quoted “Dubinushka” (“The cudgel”), an old Russian revolutionary song that had been banned under the tsars.

Taylor was never associated with the political left, and his composing a Fanfare for Russia in wartime did not in itself make for such an association. In the case of Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, however, those associations went deep: not only to the Lincoln music of Earl Robinson or the writings of Carl Sandburg (who was the first to record the speaker’s part, with Kostelanetz, shortly after the premiere), but to the Soviet genre of oratorios with speaker, singled out in Elie Siegmeister’s Popular Front tract for its capacity “to focus and intensify a sense of solidarity among great masses of people.”85

Indeed, according to the threefold definition to be given in chapter 13, Copland’s Lincoln Portrait perfectly exemplified what in the Soviet Union was called “socialist realist” art. It had a pronounced national character, conveyed both through citations of actual folk and popular songs and by means of a personal style that drew heavily on an idealized folk idiom. It had a strong ideological component, conveyed both explicitly in words, and implicitly by virtue of its accessibility to a wide and heterogeneous audience, which it sought to unite behind an idea. And yes, it served the purposes of the Communist Party as then enunciated, which at that time of crisis were barely distinguishable from the aims of American society at large.

Those aims were later sharply differentiated, of course, and during the 1950s and beyond, to be identified as a Communist carried a ruinous stigma in the United States. The stigma was not unjustified in the case of the many Communist operatives who actively engaged in espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union; but it was also applied indiscriminately to members and sympathizers who were associated with the Party out of sincere idealism in the 1930s and 1940s, when radical politics was not considered to be at all incompatible with American patriotism. As we shall see, Copland was forced to disavow his earlier political affiliations, and claim that his Americanist style was a purely esthetic construct. His music was sufficiently popular, and he was sufficiently esteemed as a musician, for the claim to be accepted. But the connection between his widely emulated Americanist idiom and the Popular Front is a historical fact. Unless it is taken into account, the development of American music during the depression years cannot be adequately understood. There is no reason to assume that Anglo-American folklore would have achieved its emblematic status in American concert music under other circumstances.

As in the case of “jazz,” the authenticity of Copland’s folklore appropriations was challenged. Roy Harris, whose Americanist style had been a stimulant to Copland’s, but who had kept proudly aloof from “quotational” methods, was stirred to compete with Copland after the success of Billy the Kid threatened his status as premier Americanist. (It is possible, too, that Harris was stimulated more directly by the Popular Front line; although he was never institutionally affiliated with radical politics, he was an enthusiast of Soviet music and dedicated his Fifth Symphony, first performed shortly after the German defeat at Stalingrad in February 1943, to “the heroic and freedom-loving people of our great Ally, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, as a tribute to their strength in war, their staunch idealism for world peace, their ability to cope with stark materialistic problems of world order without losing a passionate belief in the fundamental importance of the arts.”) Harris’s Fourth Symphony, originally conceived as a “Folksong Jamboree” for nonprofessional chorus and orchestra (and retitled “Folksong Symphony” at his publisher’s insistence after two purely instrumental movements were added to it) is a medley of famous American songs. Three movements are based on single songs, including, as finale, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again,” a Civil War song on which Harris had already composed an overture on commission. The second movement, titled “Western Cowboy,” is a tapestry woven of three songs from the Lomax collection, and the next-to-last, called “Negro Fantasy,” conflates two well-known spirituals. Two of the cowboy songs in the second movement had already been used by Copland in Billy the Kid. The Symphony was first performed in April 1940, and in its revised and expanded form received another well-publicized premiere in December.

In between, Harris published a testy article called “Folksong—American Big Business,” in which he made two big claims. First, that the integrity of American folklore was threatened by commercial exploitation; and second, that only those for whom folk songs were the stuff of daily life had any business incorporating them into artworks. In support of the first claim, Harris warned of “urban charlatans”86 (as Beth Levy puts it): “America,” Harris prophesied:

will have many folksong vendors in the next few years. Some city boys may take a short motor trip through our land and return to write the Song of the Prairies—others will be folksong authorities after reading in a public library for a few weeks.87

“Song of the Prairies,” Saga of the Prairie—it was clear who Harris was trying to impugn. In support of his second claim, he offered himself as evidence: the composer as great Westerner, the first of a breed who

will absorb and use the idioms of folk music as naturally as the folk who unconsciously generated them. They will have learned that folk song is a native well-spring, an unlimited source of fresh material; that it can’t be reduced to a few formulas to stir and mix to taste. Those composers who are drawn to and richly satisfied with folksong will inherit the privilege of using it with the professional’s resources and discipline and the amateur’s enthusiasm and delight.88

To solidify the claim that he came to folk song as a birthright, rather than as a commodity to be exploited, Harris began the article with autobiographical ruminations, recalling how “Idaho Bill,” a cowboy friend, complained to the composer about the professionalization of the rodeo at a Cowboy’s Reunion they had attended together. “You know there’s somethin cussed-ornery about that, somehow,” said Idaho Bill.89 “Taint decent to be ridin your heart out for pay.” “Now that,” the composer commented, “is what folksong is all about: singing and dancing your heart out for yourself and the people you were born among” (italics added).

But though a Westerner, the California-bred Harris was no cowboy; his attempt to construct a self-serving mystique of authenticity was as spurious as it was pernicious. And it did not work. It was precisely the novelty and the originality, rather than the literal authenticity, of Copland’s folk-song treatments that gained them their acceptance as American emblem in the context of the concert hall; as always, the only authenticity that counts is perceived authenticity.

The decisive success that a left-leaning, homosexual Jew from Brooklyn, triply marginalized by birth and temperament from anyone’s definition of an all-American hero, finally enjoyed in defining America musically is further testimony to what has already emerged many times over as a musical-historical truth: in art, the national is a socially negotiated discourse rather than a natural essence. Popular acceptance, as evidenced both by audience reaction and by professional emulation, is what determines the authenticity of musical nationalism; and popular acceptance is a complicated transaction into which many historical factors inevitably—and unpredictably—play.


(82) Jessica Burr, “Arranging ‘Git Along, Little Dogies’: A Case Study Using Aaron Copland’s Cowboy Songbooks,” paper presented at the Sixty-Fifth Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society, Kansas City, Missouri, 4 November 1999.

(83) Robinson and Gordon, Ballad of an American, p. 65.

(84) Howard Pollack, Aaron Copland, p. 358.

(85) Siegmeister, Music and Society, p. 59.

(86) Levy, “White Hope,” p. 158.

(87) Roy Harris, “Folksong—American Big Business” (1940); Contemporary Composers on Contemporary Music, eds. Elliott Schwartz and Barney Childs (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967), p. 163.

(88) Ibid., p. 164.

(89) Ibid., p. 161.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 In Search of the “Real” America." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 16 Sep. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-011008.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 11 In Search of the “Real” America. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-011008.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 In Search of the “Real” America." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-011008.xml