“Aaron Copland and the Spirit of Labor Day” – the radio documentary I was delighted to produce for the enterprising NPR newsmagazine “1A” – is archived here.
I received a wonderfully bristling response from Steve Robinson, who for more than a decade ran WFMT/Chicago when it was (by far) the best classical-music radio station in the US. Steve writes:
“The Copland program was entertaining, informative and, if I can use a word that fell out of favor in public radio decades ago, educational. Listening to this one-hour special on a nationally syndicated news program was a surreal experience and took me back to my early days in public radio (late ’60’s…) when stations weren’t afraid to air documentary programs about classical music that were challenging and thought provoking. I had thought those days were gone forever.”
I share Steve’s admiration for Rupert Allman, who produces “1A” and proposed that the complex – and timely, and controversial – Copland odyssey be allocated a full 50-minute slot.
The show narrates in considerable detail Copland’s adventures on the political left – and the price he paid: a 1953 interrogation by Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn, which we re-enacted.
I was expertly partnered by Peter Bogdanoff, with whom I have created six documentary films – including “Aaron Copland: American Populist” – that Naxos will release in November in tandem with my new book Dvorak’s Prophecy and the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music.
Here’s a listener’s guide to the radio show:
1:40: “Into the Streets May First,” Copland’s prize-winning 1934 workers’ song (a possible radio premiere)
4:30: Copland’s advice to “participants in revolutionary activity” interested in producing “a good mass song” as “a powerful weapon in the class struggle.”
5:33: Copland addresses a Communist picnic in Minnesota, talking to farmers as “one Red to another.”
8:00: Backlash: the Red Scare and “a resulting climate of fear and intolerance, of division and polarization, of futility of dialogue and informed discussion” – all “pertinent today.”
14:05: Copland’s Piano Variations (1930) – a modernist “wake-up call,” a “new American sound”
16:00: In Mexico, Copland finds himself “a little envious” of artists and musicians who inform the fate and identity of a nation, versus “working in a vacuum” in the US.
17:25: In search of “new musical audiences,” Copland fashions a style “for both us and them” – and takes it to Hollywood, where Erich Korngold’s musical upholsteries sound Viennese.
20:35: A trial run for Hollywood – Copland composes his best film score, today the most important Copland score we don’t know: The City (1939). It embodies a new American sound for the cinema – and also a manifesto on the left, propaganda for an activist government. We audition four excerpts, narrated and conducted by Angel Gil-Ordonez with PostClassical Ensemble.
34:07: Historian Joseph McCartin on the collision courses charted by Copland and McCarthy
35:50: Copland’s interrogation by Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn. Asked if he has ever been a “Communist sympathizer,” or has attended “a Communist meeting of any kind,” he wriggles as best he can.
40:15: Closing a circle, abandoning the “new audience” he once courted, Copland laboriously fashions a valedictory Piano Fantasy (1957) returning to the dissonant idiom of the Piano Variations he composed nearly three decades before. With commentary by pianist Benjamin Pasternack, who ultimately finds Copland the man inscrutable.
43:48: The Copland story as a parable about the fate of the artist in American culture and society – a “synthetic populist,” he’s both “iconic and marginal,” residing “both inside and outside the American experience.” I tell an eyewitness story about Copland being disrespected by the New York Philharmonic (1980) and contrast that with the manner in which Benjamin Britten was esteemed in Great Britain. Notwithstanding Copland’s influence and celebrity, his aspiration that he and his fellow American composers might shape the cultural affairs of a nation – as Carlos Chavez and Diego Rivera could in Mexico – remained unrealized.
My parting shot (48:40): America’s artists have been allotted “an insufficient role.” My forthcoming Dvorak’s Prophecy and the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music argues a failure to identify a “usable past.” “We absolutely need to connect with our past. In general, as Americans, we have short memories. And right now if we cannot claim and refresh a common cultural inheritance, we’ll be in trouble as a nation.”