“As I see it, music that is born complex is not inherently better or worse than music that is born simple.” – Aaron Copland
As the nation prepares to inaugurate Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States, and Kamala Harris as his Vice-President, our Video of the Week will focus on the composer whose music – and iconic presence – has reverberated across nearly seven decades of the pomp and circumstance of American presidential inaugurations.
Though Aaron Copland‘s connection with this most solemn of American rituals did not begin well. Despite having written a powerful and moving tribute to the very first Republican president (Abraham Lincoln), slated to be performed at the inauguration of Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953, Copland’s Lincoln Portrait was scrubbed at the last minute, a casualty of the prevailing anti-Communist rhetoric of the era.
But Copland would persevere. One year earlier, the creative composer with the populist touch had gathered, deftly arranged, and assembled a collection of what he dubbed Old American Songs. The collection includes the sturdy and unshakeable Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts”, used to emotionally powerful effect in Copland’s classic Appalachian Spring.
Toss in the Fanfare for a Common Man, and Hoedown (from his music to to the ballet Rodeo), and you have pretty much got every American presidential inauguration covered from John F. Kennedy to Joseph R. Biden. Simple Gifts rang out both inside and outside the Capitol rotunda during the second inauguration of Ronald Reagan and the first of Bill Clinton, thanks to Jessye Norman (1985) and Marilyn Horne (1993). Copland himself was on hand for the 1977 inauguration of Jimmy Carter, leading the National Symphony Orchestra in what historians call “the greatest symphonic inauguration ever.” And in 2009, the overt Copland tribute by film composer John Williams titled Air and Simple Gifts, brought back the Shaker hymn in instrumental form, realized by a powerhouse quartet of violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, clarinetist Anthony McGill, and pianist Gabriela Montero, gathered together for Barak Obama’s first inauguration in 2009. Fanfare for the Common Man also resounded both for Obama in 2009 and for Reagan’s first inauguration in 1981.
American gospel composer, poet, and Baptist minister Robert Lowry (1826 – 1899). His best-known hymn was composed in New York City in 1964, ravaged by the effects of the Civil War and a citywide epidemic. Lowry later recounted that he got the idea for the composition from his pastoral visits to sick patients, who would ask him if they would be “reunited at the river” with lost loved ones, in reference to the Book of Revelations.
At The River
(Robert Lowry, 1864)
Shall we gather at the river?
Where bright angel feet have trod
With its crystal tide forever
Flowing by the throne of God
Soon our pilgrimage will cease
Soon our happy hearts will quiver
With the melody of peace
The beautiful, the beautiful river
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God
And now in 2021, Copland’s sturdy, stalwart, and occasionally soaring voice still resonates in our most American moments. The Hope and Harmony Ensemble, made up of performers from the Atlanta Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Cincinnati Symphony, Dallas Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Minnesota Orchestra, National Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Pacific Symphony, South Asian Symphony, St. Louis Symphony, and Utah Symphony, just released a video of both Copland’s Fanfare as well as Joan Tower’s Copland-inspired Fanfare for an Uncommon Woman, assembled and conducted by Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Music Director Marin Alsop.
And on Inauguration Day itself, composer Peter Boyer’s brand-new Fanfare for Tomorrow will be performed by the United States Marine Band, which has performed at every Presidential Inauguration since the 1801 swearing in of Thomas Jefferson. The Copland connection? The piece was first commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, which also commissioned Copland’s fanfare in 1942!
We don’t have a brass section at the Heifetz Institute, but we do occasionally welcome in special guests, such as for our Grand Finale concert of 2017, when in trod to Francis Auditorium the bright feet – and shimmering voice! – of soprano Angel Azzarra, who brought our summer season to a close with another selection from the set of Copland’s Old American Songs: – Shall We Gather At the River – a piece, ironically first imagined during an epidemic of disease. It’s followed, inevitably, by the final notes of every Heifetz summer: Shenandoah. We are bound away to the future!