Aaron Copland, Symphony for Organ and Orchestra

by Matthew Mugmon

Written for the concert New York Avant-Garde, performed on Oct 3, 2013 at Carnegie Hall.

Copland born Nov 14, 1900 in Brooklyn; died Dec 2, 1990 in North Tarrytown, NY
Symphony for Organ and Orchestra composed in 1924; Commissioned by Sergey Koussevitsky; Premiered Jan 11, 1925 at Aeolian Hall in NYC by the New York Symphony Society under Walter Damrosch with Nadia Boulanger on the organ
Approximate performance time: 25 minutes
Instruments: 2 flutes, 1 piccolo, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 4 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion, celesta, 1 harp, strings, and solo organ

Aaron Copland is regularly credited with having musically captured American landscapes in his ballets Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942), and Appalachian Spring (1944). But the 1920s, an often overlooked period in his career, were crucial in establishing his musical persona. Copland’s composition teacher in Paris, Nadia Boulanger, introduced him to the star conductor Serge Koussevitzky. Koussevitzky, who would soon begin a 25-year tenure as leader of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, sensed Copland’s potential and asked him to write an orchestral work to perform in America, with a solo organ part for Boulanger.

The result was Copland’s first significant orchestral composition, the three-movement Symphony for Organ and Orchestra (1924). Its airy, short first movement (“Prelude”) highlights the interplay between a slow but rhythmically steady organ part and various solo instruments. Copland later called the second movement (“Scherzo”) an early attempt to “adapt the raw material of jazz,” and he identified “rhythms that would not have been there if I had not been born and raised in Brooklyn.” The Scherzo is more about motion than melody, and urban energy lurks in the fast-moving, wind-dominated opening with its quickly shifting rhythms. In the middle, a long organ solo features a syncopated rhythm and a bluesy melodic inflection. The dramatic third movement (“Finale”) is the symphony’s center of gravity. Copland begins it with a mournful viola melody but builds to a rush of sound for full orchestra, with the organ finally revealing its potential for volume and sonic expansiveness. Brass outbursts, dazzling counterpoint, and abrupt mood shifts dominate this movement, which concludes with organ and orchestra at full throttle.

Walter Damrosch premiered Copland’s Symphony for Organ and Orchestra in January of 1925; Koussevitzky followed suit with the BSO on February 20. After the Boston performance, the writer Paul Rosenfeld, one of Copland’s advocates, noted that it was “hissed by a few convinced conservatives and violently applauded by a greater number of musical radicals.” Copland later produced a version without organ, which he designated as his First Symphony.

Matthew Mugmon is assistant professor of musicology at the University of Arizona. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 2013.