National Identity—Addressing our Post-Election Crisis with Classical Music

This weekend I'm conducting a concert titled "Classical Meets Neoclassical." It explores ideas of national identity and discourse. In light of our unprecedented presidential election season and its astonishing result, this programming seems prescient—Haydn's Symphony No. 92 ("Oxford"), Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, and Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man and Appalachian Spring. Perhaps the connection between these pieces can even help focus on ideas that have made America such a unique expression of liberty, freedom, and hope.

Haydn composed his “Oxford” symphony in 1790, the same year George Washington was inaugurated as our first U.S. President, both stellar examples of the Age of Enlightenment, or as American revolutionary Thomas Paine coined it, the Age of Reason. Science challenged social transformations. People demanded rule based on reason instead of tyranny. A new open discussion between upper and middle classes filled the air with subjects of liberty and religious tolerance. George Washington and Haydn were both Freemasons. Above all, the Enlightenment witnessed a creative explosion in new ideas about government. It specifically influenced our U.S. Constitution, an organized system of government that separates power and balances tensions of different factions to prevent either a despot or mob-rule. In music, the sonata style is somewhat analogous . Perfected by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, sonata style supports a conversation of musical ideas that balance opposing tensions of harmony and melody—indeed, an environment that permits freedom for conflicting ideas governed by reason.

Haydn’s symphony is a community of conflict and dissent. Even in the opening introduction, a mysterious E flat in the low strings disturbs and threatens to take over the key of G major. This disruptive element spreads to such an extreme in the symphony that the temporal fabric begins to break down. Sometimes accents so confuse the meter, that we can’t distinguish the real downbeat. Other times the music suddenly stops altogether—strange pauses in the continuum. These disruptions produce tension and dramatic moments that today we hear as “Beethovenian!” Yet all these tensions continue as a dialogue of ideas, and eventually resolve within the system of the sonata style.  They don’t break the system. Sonata style, like our Constitution, has the strength and flexibility to unfold a complex conversation with infinite variety. It may be expanded, stretched, even amended, while still maintaining its principles of justice and balance in its form.

The revolution of early 20th century modernism ended the era of tonal harmony that created sonata style. With Arnold Schoenberg’s “emancipation of dissonance,” the days of the sonata—a system based fundamentally on controlled (rather than free) dissonance— were numbered. Yet even as 20th century modernists eschewed Romanticism and embraced unresolved dissonance, they began to look backwards to older forms as well. Stravinsky, the composer most often credited with starting the revolution with his ballet the Rite of Spring, surprised his most ardent followers by referring back to classical and baroque structures almost immediately with works like his ballet Pulcinella, based on older 18th century music. It sounded strange at first, like older music rewritten with wrong notes. But after creating a genuine revolution and throwing out all the rules, he and many other composers realized that they had also thrown out the very structures that held their music together, the common grammar that communicated their music to audiences. To paraphrase Stravinsky, the revolutionaries had destroyed the necessary constraints that gave composers genuine liberty.

So while one group of composers carried modernism forward, devising new grammars, new musical systems and procedures (the 12 tone method, serialism, aleatoric procedures, micropolyphony, etc.), composers like Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Britten, Shostakovich, Copland, Bartok, etc. increasingly composed in a style we call neoclassical, music that expresses the new sounds, textures, and harmonies of the 20th century, but places them within the older classical structures. Neoclassical composers essentially returned to the coherence of the tonal system, but enriched and expanded its palette.

In pairing Copland’s Appalachian Spring with Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, we can hear how these neoclassical composers fused together styles of past and present, and in doing so, directly addressed issues of national identity. 

Composed in 1944, Copland’s ballet Appalachian Spring, became an instant “classic,” the quintessence of American concert music. Its theme is the American pioneer spirit itself. Copland taps into American history quoting the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” and evokes American folk music with cowboy melodies and fiddling tunes. Even the main theme has a folk song quality. But Appalachian Spring also references music from the European classical tradition. The opening sustained note A is more than a little similar to the opening of Austrian composer Gustav Mahler’s first symphony.  Copland’s slow gorgeous unfolding string sonority recalls too Mahler’s famous string and harp Adagietto from his fifth symphony. Copland’s faster string ostinatos and rising fourths in the brass sound reference similar passages in English composer Gustav Holst’s “Jupiter” from The Planets. There is even one striking dissonant and expressive passage in Appalachian Spring that for a moment takes us to the world of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, composed just seven years earlier. Last, but hardly least, the bustle and multi-layered textures of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka hover over all of Copland’s percussive and energetic sections. With its original use of cinematic editing techniques (analogous to superimposition, splices, jump cuts, etc.), Petrushka in fact had enormous influence on many American composers, not just Copland.


While in some ways Copland’s ballet and Rodrigo’s guitar concerto sound so completely different, there are striking parallels. Rodrigo’s concerto is also among the most popular 20th century works, and was written in 1938, just six years before Copland’s ballet. Rodrigo also reaches into history, quoting music of Baroque Spanish composer Gaspar Sanz. Where Copland goes to the prairie for cowboy songs and the Appalachians for fiddle tunes, Rodrigo goes to Andalusia and the gypsies to conjure beautiful and exotic flamenco. And again, like Copland, Rodrigo’s ear is attuned to the music of his time, freely switching between lush, expressive Late Romanticism and the drier, more objective style of Stravinsky’s neoclassicism, especially another famous ballet of Stravinsky’s–Pulcinella.

Rodrigo composed his concerto directly after Fascist dictator Francisco Franco gained control of Spain. By keeping modern harmonies and references in the background and quotes from the Spanish Baroque and Andalusian flamenco in the foreground, he brought attention to the tradition of cultural beauty of his country. Fortunately for him, Franco supported flamenco (he actively censored many other artistic cultural traditions). Successfully avoiding controversy, Rodrigo’s work not only became the most popular guitar concerto, but a gem that inspired admiration worldwide for Spanish culture. Given a country now devoid of human rights and liberties, he found a way to focuschoice could he have made musically to articulate a could he make

The title of Copland’s 1942 work, Fanfare for the Common Man, comes from a speech Vice-President Henry A. Wallace gave during the dark years of World War Two. He articulated the importance of freedom and rights of the individual, proclaiming the “century of the common man.” This sentiment is absolutely intrinsic to Appalachian Spring as well. People often describe Copland’s music evoking the American landscape with its wide-open spaces. But perhaps it is even more accurate to say that his music evokes the best of American identity, democratically mixing together so many different musics (like the old descriptors “melting pot” or “salad bowl”) to emphasize simplicity, plainness, equality, vigor, creativity, conflict, integrity, gratitude, spirituality, great beauty—all of these holding together with a spirit of individual liberty and tolerance, the tenets being so powerfully challenged with our immediate American future, but which must prevail if we are to remain Americans.

I truly welcome your comments.