Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sunday Classics: 'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free -- "Simple Gifts" as rendered by Aaron Copland


Marilyn Horne sings Aaron Copland's arrangements of "Simple Gifts," "Long Time Ago" (at 2:20), and "At the River" (at 6:02) from his Old American Songs, with James Levine conducting the New York Philharmonic, at the May 1991 Carnegie Hall Centennial Gala.

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.
by Ken

So we were hornswoggled during the inaugural ceremonies! The day after, I wrote:
It was a nice gesture, having the presidential swearing-in preceded by a brief "serious" musical offering played by the rainbow quartet of violinist Itzhak Perlman, clarinetist Anthony McGill, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and pianist Gabriela Montero, and it's impossible not to admire their hardiness in performing -- not at all bundled up -- under those weather conditions [emphasis added]. The actual offering, John Williams' Air and Simple Gifts, was concocted for the occasion. So-called "occasional" music doesn't have the happiest history, and this didn't impress me as a happy specimen.

Not so, however. It turns out that, for understandable reasons, the musicians weren't performing in those dreadful conditions. They were Milli Vanilli-ing. Of course these players, unlike the Milli Vanilli boys, could actually have played their parts, as they did for the recording that was played. As I say, it's understandable that, given the circumstances, they weren't asked to do so, but it seems to me that in that situation you can't fake it -- what you have to do is introduce the musicians and invite the audience to join them in listening to their pre-recording.

But I digress. In our clip above we have mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne giving a fine performance of Aaron Copland's arrangement of the Shaker song "Simple Gifts," along with two more of the Copland-arranged Old American Songs, in the composer's orchestral version. (An earlier Horne performance of just "Simple Gifts" in the piano-accompanied version -- played by Martin Katz -- can be heard here.)

The best performances I've heard of the Old American Songs were given in recital by the late bass-baritone Donald Gramm, but unfortunately he never recorded them, though I imagine there must be live-performance tapes somewhere. For a charming bit of culture clash, you can hear baritone Thomas Quasthoff singing "Long Time Ago," "Simple Gifts" (at 3:12), and "I Bought Me a Cat" (at 4:58) from the Berlin Philharmonic's "Silvesterkonzert" this past New Year's Eve, with music director Sir Simon Rattle conducting.

The Old American Songs were first performed by bass-baritone William Warfield, starting with the first set of five (including "Simple Gifts," "Long Time Ago," and "I Bought Me a Cat") in 1951. Warfield's wonderful mono recordings of both sets, made shortly after their premieres in 1951 and 1953 with the composer at the piano, are included in Vol. 2, "Chamber Music and Rarities," of Sony Classical's 2000 series A Copland Celebration, three two-CD sets that can now be had dirt-cheap on Warfield was past his vocal best when he and Copland got around to the orchestral version in 1962, but that beautiful stereo recording still hasn't been equaled. (It's in Vol. 3, "Vocal Works and Opera," of A Copland Celebration.)

Before Copland made his arrangement of "Simple Gifts" in the Old American Songs, he had brought the song, well known among the Shakers but not elsewhere, to general consciousness when he used it for the final section of his 1944 "Ballet for Martha" (Graham, that is -- for use by her trailblazing dance company), Appalachian Spring. Last week I wondered if the second movement of Schubert's String Quintet in C is the most beautiful music ever written. It would certainly be on my shortest short list, and so would Appalachian Spring.

The original version of the ballet was scored, out of necessity, given the Graham company's limited resources, for a modest ensemble of 13 instruments (two first violins, two second violins, two violas, two cellos, double bass, flute, clarinet, bassoon, and piano). Here is a culture-straddling, though decidedly quickish, performance of the last six minutes, beginning with the clarinet's first sounding of the "Simple Gifts" theme, by 12 members of the Tsinghua University Symphony Orchestra, with conductor Shao Zhang playing the piano part, given in Beijing last May 26:

The score of Copland's 1945 full-orchestra Appalachian Spring Suite contains this note:
The action of the ballet concerns "a pioneer celebration in spring around a newly-built farmhouse in the Pennsylvania hills in the early part of the last century. The bride-to-be and the young farmer-husband enact the emotions, joyful and apprehensive, their new domestic partnership invites. An older neighbour suggests now and then the rocky confidence of experience. A revivalist and his followers remind the new householders of the strange and terrible aspects of human fate. At the end the couple are left quiet and strong in their new house."

As anyone familiar with both the original chamber scoring and the later orchestral Appalachian Spring knows, wonderful as the full-orchestra version is, in the 13-instrument version the composer made a virtue of necessity -- it has its own gritty rustic pioneer charm. That version wasn't much played before Columbia Masterworks (now Sony Classical) had the composer make a recording in New York in 1973 with the "Columbia Chamber Ensemble," an assemblage of top-notch free-lance musicians.

(For the record, that recording employs 15 rather than 13 players, using a trick that other performers of the chamber version would do well to follow: adding a third player on each violin part, because two violinists playing the same music will always sound somewhat anemic and slightly out of tune against each other, no matter how precise their intonation may seem, whereas if you add a third player, you can get a blended -- and in-tune -- ensemble sound.)

For that 1973 recording Copland was persuaded to do the complete ballet, which includes a chunk of about seven minutes that he had omitted from the suite, fearing that it wouldn't hold up to the scrutiny of non-dance performance. He made it clear that this is a separate issue from the choice of orchestral vs. chamber version, that both the complete ballet and the suite can be performed in either scoring.

The 1973 Appalachian Spring was issued in Vol. 1 of Sony's Copland Celebration ("Famous Orchestral and Chamber Works"), along with the fascinating 17-minute chunk of rehearsal that Columbia had released as a bonus with the original LP issue. The composer's CBS recording of the orchestral suite with the London Symphony was not included in the Copland Celebration but has been issued in goodness-knows-how-many CD editions, as has his earlier RCA recording with the Boston Symphony.

To hear a sample of the orchestral version, there's an online performance of the complete suite by David Matthies and the DePauw University Symphony Orchestra, of which Part 3 picks up a little before the above chamber version. (You'll hear the clarinet entrance with the "Simple Gifts" tune at 1:15.)


By now there have been countless recordings of the Appalachian Spring Suite in the full-orchestra version. I have a special fondness for William Steinberg's lovely Command recording with the Pittsburgh Symphony, which has surely found its way onto CD. (The earlier Steinberg-Pittsburgh version, on Everest, is fine too, but that's not the one I mean.) In addition to the composer's own recordings, noted above, not surprisingly Leonard Bernstein's recordings -- the earlier CBS/Sony one with the New York Philharmonic and the predictably more spacious, reflective DG one with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (both issued in countless CD couplings) -- remain especially satisfying.

For the Old American Songs, the Warfield-Copland recordings -- the mono one with piano, the stereo with orchestra -- are both indispensable, all the more so in that I don't have much to suggest in the way of alternatives.


The updated list can be found here.

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At 6:33 PM, Blogger Kevin Downes said...

Kenny, I love your music posts. Beautiful. Kevin

At 7:03 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Thanks, Kevin. I appreciate the feedback.

Cheers --



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