Leonard Slatkin on Copland’s Third Symphony

Skype Interview 6th September 2018


Internationally acclaimed conductor Leonard Slatkin is Music Director Laureate of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) and Directeur Musical Honoraire of the Orchestre National de Lyon (ONL). He maintains a rigorous schedule of guest conducting throughout the world and is active as a composer, author, and educator.


Highlights of the 2018-19 season include a tour of Germany with the ONL; a three-week American Festival with the DSO; the Kastalsky Requiem project commemorating the World War I Centennial; Penderecki’s 85th birthday celebration in Warsaw; five weeks in Asia leading orchestras in Guangzhou, Beijing, Osaka, Shanghai, and Hong Kong; and the Manhattan School of Music’s 100th anniversary gala concert at Carnegie Hall. He will also conduct the Moscow Philharmonic, Balearic Islands Symphony, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Louisville Orchestra, Berner Symphonieorchester, Pittsburgh Symphony, St. Louis Symphony, RTÉ National Symphony in Ireland, and Monte Carlo Symphony.


Slatkin has received six Grammy awards and thirty-three nominations. His recent Naxos recordings include works by Saint-Saëns, Ravel, and Berlioz (with the ONL) and music by Copland, Rachmaninov, Borzova, McTee, and John Williams (with the DSO). In addition, he has recorded the complete Brahms, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky symphonies with the DSO (available online as digital downloads).


A recipient of the prestigious National Medal of Arts, Slatkin also holds the rank of Chevalier in the French Legion of Honor. He has received Austria’s Decoration of Honor in Silver, the League of American Orchestras’ Gold Baton Award, and the 2013 ASCAP Deems Taylor Special Recognition Award for his debut book, Conducting Business. His second book, Leading Tones: Reflections on Music, Musicians, and the Music Industry, was published by Amadeus Press in 2017.


Slatkin has conducted virtually all the leading orchestras in the world. As Music Director, he has held posts in New Orleans; St. Louis; Washington, DC; London (with the BBCSO); Detroit; and Lyon, France. He has also served as Principal Guest Conductor in Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Cleveland.


Well, I have my score here!


What you have, I suspect, is the previous edition – the score without the new revisions. Over the last ten years, I’ve been to the Library of Congress and found passages that were removed by Bernstein. Those cuts had become standard. I put them back in, and the new edition reflects that.


Ah right – when I was reading about the piece it was just the eight bars that were cut at the end of the last movement[1] that are usually mentioned.


No, the other changes have to do with dynamics, rhythm, notes! (laughs) A lot of things got changed.


Really, throughout?


… and actually it’s not just the eight bars at the end – there are a couple before that too. It’s just that nobody ever went through the manuscript to look and see what he really wrote. The recording I made last year contains all of the changes. You’re not going to notice the rhythmic one because it sounds the same, but I’m pleased that I was able to get the original ending in.


You’ve recorded it both ways, haven’t you?


Yeah, I recorded it almost thirty years ago in St Louis.[2] I’ve had a score of this from Boosey for a very long time, since I was a student. I knew that Bernstein had influenced Copland to make some modifications, especially at the end. I researched it at the library and when I found the eight bars etc. I had them reinstated for my own performances. Gradually other conductors started to take it up.


So it came from you then?




I didn’t realise that! Copland had mixed feelings about Bernstein’s changes, didn’t he?


I don’t think he did. You have to understand we’re talking about the mid-1940s, when Bernstein was very clearly going to become the chief spokesperson, not only for Copland, but also for so many other composers.[3] All of them were almost deferential, because they knew that he would be the one to go out and promote their music in the United States and worldwide. That turned out, of course, to be the case. So they didn’t want to get on his weak side – he was a very strong, dominating personality. Copland was also strong, of course, but not in the same way. Bernstein convinced him (just as he convinced William Schuman, Roy Harris and others too) to adjust the music to what he would have done.


So, did you know Copland at all?




Yeah, I thought you did.


Well I was a West Coast person; Copland was primarily on the East. But when I first came to St Louis as the Assistant Conductor, Copland came and conducted a few times. As an assistant, one of my jobs was to run up and check the balances, and do whatever little busy chores he needed. One time we went with the orchestra to Ames, Iowa and I did a run up concert. I sat with him on the plane and we chatted the whole time through. On my wall (you can’t see it from there) I have one of only two autographs I ever asked a composer for. Copland’s is on the title page of Appalachian Spring (he did it on the aeroplane). He wrote ‘to my dear friend Leonard somewhere in the air, his friend Aaron’. It’s very sweet!


(Laughs) Aaah. It’s refreshing to watch him in interviews. He seems very modest and understated.


Well, you have to divide his life into three periods. You have the early, brash young man who returns after his studies [in Europe] and creates scandalous music for the time. Then he became a sort of nationalist with the ballets, the Third Symphony and other pieces. He then tried to re-enter the mainstream of academic thought in the Fifties and Sixties (not quite as successfully as he would have liked) but still retaining his own personality. I remember he talked about how he liked conducting because he thought all he had to do is wave his arms and he got paid for it. That’s what he said!




But he really saw the development of concert music in the United States, being born in 1900. He saw the Jazz age, and the economic impact of the stock market crash. He saw the United States in times of war. He had to deal with his own issues of sexuality, and being a communist. So that mild mannered person was really quite outspoken in his own way for the time. It’s very different for people of your generation, it’s hard to imagine what it was like back then. I got to know all these people, and they all had to be just a little more reticent about who they were publicly. That’s why Bernstein had such a big impact. He was this brash guy who came along with many of the characteristics contained by fellow composers, conductors and others, except he was more open about it and beating a drum for the cause. That’s why so many others who had been meek stayed in the background and let him do the work – I think.


Yes, I can imagine. And Bernstein is a difficult personality to match whatever generation you’re from!


Well, this particular year [2018 – Bernstein’s Centenary year] has been intriguing, of course. I’m still not sure about it, but at least all the music has been put out there for the public. When things settle down after the next few months we’ll see what Bernstein’s place is. He was always struggling to be taken more seriously as a composer. Copland never had that problem. Right from the outset [i.e. the Twenties] he was a major force on the scene.


Yes, when he came back from Europe.


Obviously, you’ve worked with the American repertoire your whole career. When people refer to the American style, they’re often thinking of that expansive, optimistic, ‘anything is possible’ sound, which is so present in this piece. On a practical level, how do you go about creating that?


You know, it’s so interesting when you look back at the conductors who promoted the canon of the American symphonic school. In the Twentieth Century only the United States, Britain and Russia were writing symphonies on a regular basis. Germany had dropped out of the picture (Hindemith really didn’t do it) but in America we had all of these pieces by Schuman, Harris, Piston, Copland… But guess what? We didn’t have American conductors yet. Those works were all premiered by conductors of European or Slavic heritage: Koussevitsky,[4] Stokowski, Ormandy, Reiner and so on. Orchestras themselves were dominated by musicians from other countries: Koussevitsky’s Boston Symphony was mainly German musicians to start with. The New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia orchestras were mainly Italian musicians.


The American sound didn’t come from the musicians themselves, it was the composers doing what Nadia Boulanger had told them to do: ‘study with me, but you go home and listen to the inherent music in the country and create something for the concert hall’. That’s what Copland certainly did with the Organ Symphony. All of a sudden jazz rhythms were coming into the hall, and at the same time there was Gershwin and Cole Porter and all these other composers. We were adopting the sound of the popular culture. Up until the Twentieth Century we tended to look at all music in one straight line. Mozart leads to Beethoven, leads to Schubert, leads to Mendelssohn, leads to Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner etc. Then you get to the Twentieth Century and all of a sudden Stravinsky and Schoenberg split into the two extremes (others went right down the middle). You had some composers who didn’t enter the Twentieth Century. Rachmaninov (and a lot of the other Russians) and even, you could argue, Mahler never really became a Twentieth Century composer. Our sound was composers coming back from Europe and imposing a kind of virtuosity that hadn’t existed before (particularly with the brass).


These days, if you hear an orchestra from another country playing the Third Symphony by Copland they can technically get around it. I did a performance of it in Tokyo with the NHK. It was perfectly fine; it was excellent. If you can play it technically and the conductor knows the piece (or any piece like it), you can usually get a fairly accurate idea of how it sounds. Now that has two sides to it. Do you want the Berlin Philharmonic to sound like the New York Philharmonic? I don’t think so. You want them to keep certain characteristics that make them unique and individual – it starts disappearing more and more as we have an international pool of musicians that come into our orchestras. But Copland knew the orchestras he was writing for, he heard them often, and would test them in the way he was writing. Other composers did too. So really this sound developed from the composers expanding the technical repertoire for the musicians.


Ah OK. So it’s not as if you think ‘I’ll make sure XYZ is in place to make this kind of “American” sound’.


Well, Copland’s sound is obviously driven by several things. One is the way he uses harmonies. Many times the sound is very open, chords are not filled out. There are the rhythmic inflections that emulate part of the popular culture but at the same time also harping back to Stravinsky, or whatever it happens to be. His passion for the music of Latin America features in all the pieces at some point, in some way. So all of these inform his music. The Third Symphony, in many ways, is a complete summation of everything he had done up until this point.


Well, I love it. But it’s actually quite hard to learn isn’t it?


It’s hard to learn if you don’t know it! I grew up with it, so for me it wasn’t so hard.


I said that because when I was studying it, it reminded me of this quote about Stravinsky’s music: ‘what is most difficult to remember is what is “almost easy to remember”’ (Andriessen and Schonberger 1989:40). It actually took me longer than I thought it would to get to grips with it. Do you know what I mean?



Well again, I think that part of it is not only are we trying to create an American musical language, we’re also trying to stay within the confines of the form of the symphony. Copland has to follow the rules. He has to write a first movement that follows the sonata allegro form, then he has to write a scherzo that’s basically ABA form. He has to write a slow movement that has a contrasting middle section, and then the last movement followed the example of Beethoven. It was now considered the most important movement, as opposed to the Mozart and Haydn symphonies where it was the first movement.[5] So, you’ve got to follow those rules to start.


The second thing was to make something new and different but using his own voice. We hear, at the beginning, the comfortable world that will become that of Billy the Kid, Appalachian Spring and so on. I’m sure the first audiences thought ‘oh that’s nice, we love that. It’s beautiful; it’s positive; it’s optimistic. The war is going to come to a close, we’re all going to be OK’. The first movement comes to this very beautiful ending – the chorale near the final few bars [R18] is simply a gem of writing. It’s a fairly large orchestra, two harps, celeste, piano, a pretty large percussion section, but the rest is normal.


What number of players did you use for your Detroit recording?


I think we had about ninety-five players.


– and what were the numbers with the strings?


Oh let’s see – desks: 8, 7, 6, 5, 4.


I think most people are most comfortable with the first movement on the first hearing, because it inhabits a world we know. It deviates two times a little bit [R6-R10+3, and R14], but then immediately goes back to the comfortable world. But at the start of the second movement, the tempo’s askew and we have no idea what’s going on. Is it going to be a contrapuntal movement, is it going to be jazz-based, is it going to be rhythmic, what’s it going to be?


Yes, it’s all fragments of themes at first, isn’t it?


Yeah, but it’s like a scherzo with a real edge to it. Then we get to the middle section – now we’re in the trio and it’s very beautiful again (like it plays in the first movement, or like typical Copland). Then you get that little piano part [R43] that leads into a kind of recap of the scherzo [R45]. It then gets to a rather brash (which is always a word that they attach with Copland!) section which has an over the top kind of American-ness to it [R49 onwards]. It’s rhythmically bold. It’s the place that most other countries were just not going to go. Vaughan Williams didn’t go there. Elgar? Not so much! Walton sort of did, but he didn’t write enough for huge orchestra to really expand that. I do see parallels with the Walton’s Symphony No. 1. They were written at more or less the same time, as was Vaughan Williams 6. These are all big orchestral pieces. It’s interesting to see what else was going on in the world at the time.


So we finish up, the second movement ends. It’s kind of shattering and we now need to surrender the sword. For me this is more like Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, when the third movement starts it’s just the strings up high. Then you go into a second section again [R68]. There have been dissonances in the slow material, and then as it builds up it’s back to the Appalachian Spring world, before returning to the Copland that is to come. Bernstein said that, for him, this movement was the weak one.


Oh really?


Yeah, he wanted Copland to make even more adjustments in this movement. So, you know… what can I say? But those mostly have to do with alterations of dynamics and things like that. In a way it’s the hardest movement to conduct.


Why’s that?


Because the shape is difficult and the structure of the movement is a little bit more complicated than one would expect. In a way it’s the most ‘un-Copland-like’ of the movements. It’s not twelve-tone but it’s getting close in a couple of places. And then we have that ‘Amen’ before we start the introduction in the last movement.


…OK so we know the Fanfare of the Common Man exists. Now he’s going to expand it out into the symphony, keeping the optimistic feeling of ‘America will survive and everything going to be fine’. It’s same kind of thing Prokofiev tries to do in his Symphony No. 5. The fanfare ends, the percussion has the big high roll [R88-1] and the brass are thrilled to get through it (laughs). Now we come to a very important part of symphonic heritage with regards to form. It’s something we don’t see very much today from very many composers, and that’s the use of counterpoint [R91]. True counterpoint. Not that Copland is writing the fugue, he’s not doing that, but he’s doing things that are fugal in nature (once the allegro starts up). Voices are piling one on top of each other melodically to create new harmonic worlds. He gives us this little Latin section [R112] – all kinds of build-ups.


Finally this huge crescendo occurs. I never took the time to analyse the piercing penetrating chord that happens at the end of the fast section – the huge dissonant crash [R117]. I don’t know how many different notes there are, I don’t want to know! I just know that it’s an amazing moment in musical history – we come to this incredible crunch, as if a huge weight has been dropped on all of us with this ‘Uh-oh – what happened? What happened to all that joy that was going on before?’ Maybe it’s Copland telling us ‘well, we may be moving towards peace but maybe not, we don’t know’.


Now we come to the incredible moment when he’s able to take the Fanfare and combine it with the opening of the first movement. Nobody sees this coming the first time, it’s a really remarkable moment. There’s more of a build up – you get these new/old bars that were not heard for so many years [R129]. They do two things, for me. One – it makes a smoother transition for the ending. Yes, it adds more bombast, I know that, but I always felt it was abrupt. There was something missing before. This fitted in really nicely, especially with those three chords that lead into what would be the final two pages of the score. That is where the other cut is by the way. There’s an additional two bars that aren’t in the edition you have. There’s a 2/4 bar in there, couple pages before the ending. What you should do when you’re in London next is just go to Boosey and Hawkes and ask to see a new edition – you can do a comparative exercise. It’s kind of fun!


We have a lot of D major going on. Lots of it! And just when you think there’s not enough, four bars before the end he throws a tam-tam into it all. It just gets completely riotous and the horns have to hold the high note for a long time at the end. Stuff like that!


The symphony was received very well at its premiere, and it was played quite often.[6] In the 1960s it started to go off the radar, probably for a lot of reasons. Generally composers really weren’t writing symphonies anymore. The idea of this generation of symphonic American composers seemed old fashioned and distinctly against the rising tide of serialism that was emerging. The polar opposite, of course, is minimalism, but this symphonic way of writing held no interest for the people like Stockhausen, Boulez etc. A lot of the Europeans who took over American orchestras just weren’t interested in this kind of music – they didn’t like it. So we didn’t hear Copland’s Third very often in the Sixties and Seventies.


Over the last fifteen-twenty years Copland has now become not only the composer to represent the United States but also as a spokesperson for the meaning of the arts at the time. Given what’s been going on in this country in the last couple of years, we need another Copland. We need someone to speak up like he did. We don’t need a Bernstein right now, we need a Copland – he musically brought this country together because he was willing to embrace all styles.[7] And he was supporting other composers all the time, always. He was very selfless as a person.


Yes. I noticed that in the interviews I’ve seen.


Yes, he was charming. He’s often called the ‘Dean of American Music’. Well he didn’t come off as a dean! He’s more like the really great uncle. There was a genuineness to him that became more and more important, but he could be quite nasty. I saw him at rehearsals when he was already starting to get older. He wasn’t that good a conductor, not really, but he enjoyed it. As he got older and conducted more, the tempos got slower. If somebody made a mistake he knew something was wrong but he couldn’t quite figure out what it was that was wrong! That kind of thing.


Ah, I see what you mean.


You were just talking about that very exposed sound, harmonically. There’s a lot of playing in unison as well. On a lot of live recordings you can often hear it’s not together (not your ones though, of course).


Well, the first Bernstein recording is still a sensational recording. It’s not in tune and it’s not together, but it’s so good!


Does that sound (that’s very exposing of mistakes) mean you need more rehearsal time?


When I started to make my debuts with the big orchestras (whether it was Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles etc.) I would often bring this piece, or they would want me to do it (we’re talking about the late Seventies/early Eighties). The musicians in orchestras hadn’t seen this music for fifteen-twenty years – it was pretty much like doing a new piece. Now they’ve become more familiar with it because it’s taken its place in the repertoire now.


If I know that it’s an orchestra that might not have seen it in a long time, I immediately say that the first hour or so should just be with the strings, because you want to just go through things slowly (the fugal elements in the last movement, certainly). The second movement has some very nasty writing, and certainly the opening of the slow movement as well. Just to say ‘look you’ve got to play that high, play it with a little bit of vibrato so we have a better chance of getting it in tune’ – things like that. You don’t waste the time of the others. Chances are that your winds and percussion will know about the piece, and will have at least individually looked at it.


After I’ve had the strings for an hour, then everybody comes and plays through it and I see where it is, so I can determine what to do the next day. But if I was going next week to Boston, which now plays it a little more regularly (or New York), I would just give it the same amount of time I might as if it was a Tchaikovsky symphony or Beethoven, something like that. Just play it through, see where it is. There’s not that much that most of us, as conductors, would do differently in the piece – the tempos are fairly steady. Obviously there are differences, but they’re not that crucial to the piece. If you have an orchestra that’s technically capable of doing it, getting your ideas across usually works.


Sometimes, if I do it in Europe or Asia, I have to talk a little about the kind of sound we’re looking for. In the winds there’ll be places that they’ll need to play without vibrato, just to achieve the kind of clarity he wanted. Or with the percussion, the kind of drums that Copland was looking for – both timpani and the side drums. There are some differences in the way the sounds are made. The xylophone always has to be played with a very hard mallet. We have to add a few notes here and there in the piano part to cover a couple of Copland’s miscalculations in orchestration. Bernstein actually did that as well, and he was right. I’m glad that he was right – and they now appear in the new edition. That’s what’s fun!


When I interviewed Mark Wigglesworth on Beethoven’s Eroica, he explained how much more analysis he uses for a symphony than when the narrative is driving the music (i.e. in an opera or ballet).[8] You mentioned the structure of the symphony earlier – Copland often blurs the boundaries between themes, they can be intertwined.




Do you use much analysis to help you there?


I don’t at this point; I did when I was younger. Now if I see the word ‘symphony’ my only basis of analysis, now, is to say ‘OK where’s the recapitulation? Where’s the development?’ – things like that. For me, it’s more about the overall arc of the piece between the movements. So I’m thinking more about that kind of structure as opposed to the vertical structures at this point.[9]


So when you were younger did you do a lot of analysis, but find you weren’t really using it?


Well yeah, it was just for the benefit of understanding. How did he get from this chord to that? How did this modulation or transition occur? I wasn’t pedantic about it, just in some places I wanted to know. It’s the same kind of analysis I used to do when I did a lot of jazz piano work. Most of the changes in jazz are much more complicated than anything we see in the symphonic world. You have to get to the point where you don’t think about it, and as a student when you’re looking at a score, you have to be able to hear it in your head. The answer is sometimes just looking at it. But for me it’s a language; all of these circles and dots, that’s all it is. You just have to learn how it sounds, just like when we study a language.


You were talking about the tempo changes. Copland did put metronome markings all the way through this score, and I noticed on your recording you’re really close to them the whole time.


Oh yes. It’s the structure! It’s crotchet = 56 at the beginning. Then if you go in a few pages it winds up at 108 [R8+4]. What you don’t see is how you get from one to the other. Is it a sudden change or is it an accelerando? Shostakovich does the same thing. It’s an implied accelerando, so it’s more seamless. I have to decide whether it’s something that needs to be sudden, or whether I lead into it with a slight accelerando or ritardando. Maybe I want to make a ritard to exaggerate the tempo change – those are the kind of things that I consider my type of analysis now. You’re getting there gradually, everything needs to emerge from what happened before.


Austin wrote of the second movement’s ‘unconventional structure’ and how it’s rather fragmented. He said it’s ‘as if he wanted to expose the way his mind actually works with musical ideas’ (cited Pollack 2000:414). What do you think of that?


Well no, not for me. Again, it’s structured, it’s a scherzo. You have the fast music, you have the transitional section and then you return back to the fast music. It’s really that simple for me.


No that’s fine. It’s not as if academics ever over-complicate anything at all.




Pollack commented on how the piece is a ‘study in contrasts’ (2000:416).


Yes, that’s correct.


I noticed that the character was constantly changing at one point in the third movement.


Yes, but in the third movement nothing is abrupt. You’re right, he takes you to a new place but he always leads you there rather than taking a shift like that. Everything flows logically in the third movement.


Oh OK, there was just one section where there seemed to be many characters in a short space of time, it was great.


Well, it’s storytelling!


It’s this bit – R66 -R72.


Ah yes, this is the middle section – again we’re in this Appalachian Spring territory. But we have to get there, he leads us into that with an accelerando. He’s going for very smooth music, gradually getting to shorter and shorter notes, as he would say ‘perky’ (he loved that word!). The same is going to happen in reverse when he comes back to the slow music. He’s going to gradually slow it down, leading us from the short notes into the more sustained notes. So yes you’re right, it’s about the character, but in this movement he’s very conscious of not doing it so abruptly so it’s like, ‘oh we’re there! How did that happen?’


Ah yes I see. So what do you have in mind when you say ‘storytelling’? Is it more in an abstract sense?


Very much abstract. I think he’s aware that he’s writing a piece that’s going to be an important statement for the country (and for symphonic form) in the middle of the Twentieth Century. He’s had practice writing these – he’s written four other works that have (roughly) been called symphonies: the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra; the Short Symphony; the Dance Symphony; and the orchestral version of the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, before he wrote this one. In some ways this is the fifth symphony but in other ways it’s actually the first. The others are all a little bit strange – hybrids! This is the one shot he had, he certainly had another thirty years or so to write music but he never returned to the form. It’s like he said ‘this is it. I’ve said what I have to say’.


Yes, so it’s unlike something like Beethoven’s Eroica. People have a much more of a narrative in mind with that piece, don’t they?


Yes, well I think people create their stories for abstract music. You create your own pictures, which is why I don’t like visuals at concerts. Two thousand people come to a concert? I want two thousand different reactions.


Yes. Actually I spoke to Hans Graf a couple of weeks ago about Wozzeck,[10] and that’s what he said the secret is to pulling off that piece.


I think he’s right.


If you have too much going on visually –


– it takes away from the music.


Absolutely. Sensory overload.


Now, the bowing – that’s all in the score isn’t it?


Yeah – I was a string player, and I came from a family of string players. So, I don’t care what the composer’s writing, I’m going to change the bowing if I need to! (laughs) Even in the new edition they decided they wanted to stay with the bowings that Copland put in. I explained ‘but what he wrote here isn’t very practical, it doesn’t work’. They said ‘oh but it’s what he wrote’ – ‘yeah, but it doesn’t work’! If you’ve got a background in strings at all, you’re going to make changes that might be more comfortable for the particular orchestra. Obviously, I knew my orchestras in Detroit or St Louis etc. – the bowings I’ve had for all these years haven’t changed much. Once in a while a leader will say ‘can we try this here?’ I’ll say ‘sure’.


Different orchestras have different personalities, and they’re sometimes expressed through the bowing. You just have to be aware of that and be sensitive. For me a bowing just has to simply express the phrasing that you believe the composer intended. But if you want the strings to take a breath when none appears (if there’s a slur), if you want to take a little lift over that, it might be a bowing issue. It might be that you could just stay on the same bow, you have to just judge it on the occasion, the orchestra and the acoustic of the hall. That’s a big deal for a piece like Copland 3. There are halls where it shouldn’t be played, because it’s just too big.


Such as?


Codagan Hall would be a good example. The piece is just too big; it won’t work! I remember playing it on tour at the Wiener Musikverein in Vienna, and I just thought ‘this is horrible’. It’s a place that’s more cathedral-like in its sonority. You need a hall that has depth and clarity and enough room for the players to all get on the stage.


I read that Copland wasn’t too keen on the way the Vienna Philharmonic played his work.


Well, back then I can’t imagine it at all. Today would be closer.


He said how arrogant they were.[11]


Well a Jewish, gay, American composer – you’ve got the big three at the time. Vienna were not going to be too happy about that.


Hmm, it’s not a recipe for harmony, is it?


No, no.


I was interested in what you were saying about the audible balance. As this piece is so exposed I imagine it’s something you’re going to have to be really conscious of at particular points. Can you give me any examples of where that’s particularly pertinent?


Yes, go to the last movement, midway through – R101. Look at the flute part – it’s the fanfare. There aren’t enough instruments for that to get through. It’s the place where Bernstein (and all of us) adds the piano. They double the flute, just to get it through and give it a little more punch.


Oh I see. That’s definitely not in this older edition.


No. And it makes all the difference in the world.


Is that on many recordings?


No you won’t hear it – recording is different. You put the microphones where you want and bring the volume up or down, but for a concert this was exactly the right thing to do. I don’t remember Copland doing it, but it makes sense. There are plenty of places like that. Continue onwards after the big crunchy chord [R117]. As you go through this you’ll see all those figures in the winds. Sometimes he’s got two piccolos playing [see R120-124], sometimes the celeste is there. You have to make all of that sound as if its one instrument, so that it’s not so abrupt. It’s very hard, it’s difficult. Sometimes it will just tail up, and then another instrument just comes in. You have to do as much as you can in the balance so that no one predominates over another on an entrance. If you look near the end of the second movement, where everyone’s playing fff – of course the brass are going to obliterate anybody else. There are places where you have to say ‘I know it says fff but hold it back a little bit because I’d like to hear the strings once in a while here!’


Yeah, I noticed that. Sometimes he balances the brass, e.g. ff when the others are fff, but not always.


No. It’s the same problem we have in Beethoven and Brahms and all the others – block dynamics: ‘I just want it loud, I’ll make it loud for everybody!’ These days we tend to be a little more precise in our notation, taking into account that trumpets playing fortissimo are going to knock out the violas playing fortissimo.


When you’re relearning this piece, are there any places that for you, as the conductor, are the most difficult/concerning?


Well, the first few pages of the slow movement. It doesn’t matter what orchestra it is, it’s always going to be difficult because it’s so high and out of tune. That’s one place. I’m going to get a bit concerned about the fanfare (fourth movement). Do I have a brass section that can do it? Usually the first two movements play themselves pretty well on a read, it’s just when it gets to three and four that it becomes very complicated.


At the beginning of the third movement, it’s very slow isn’t it? Are all of those subdivisions hard to communicate?


No. First of all the musicians in the strings are too busy looking at their music, they’re not really watching you for where the beat is. But what you do have to think about is ‘OK, I have to be clear that the violas don’t come in early’. So you just keep your hands to wherever the violins are and take a nod and look over to the violas to give them a cue. Getting people in and out, that’s the only real technical right hand problem. The left hand: often one voice leads, and comes down as another one’s emerging, so you want them to fade in and out from each other, things like that. A lot of it is just experience, I’ve done it so often now that I know where the traps are!


Well I think we’ve covered most things! Is there anything you’d like to add for the readers that you think I’ve missed?


Well, if you don’t know it I’d like you to listen to any performance you can find of the William Schuman Symphony No. 3, because it’s an equivalent kind of piece, in a different language but from the same time. It’s even more assertive than Copland in many ways. It gives you a context with Copland, to these two pieces as well. And also Roy Harris, his Symphony No. 3 – these we sometimes call the ‘Holy Trinity’ of the American symphony. They’re all very different in their languages, but they all express a feeling of hope and optimism in a different way. Harris is the most simplistic, Copland falls in the middle somewhere (stylistically), and Schuman becomes more advanced, even more highly contrapuntal. It’s quite something. It’s the most intense thirty minutes you could imagine going through.


Are there any recordings that you drew on that you’d recommend?


Well I do like the early Bernstein recording of Copland (even with the cut). I haven’t listened to too many others of that. Schuman – I didn’t record it commercially, although there’s a performance that’s out there with Chicago Symphony. I’d recommend Bernstein again. And for Harris. In fact, Bernstein’s earlier versions for all of them, not when he re-did them. He recorded these pieces twice, but always go to the earlier versions. They just have more dynamic energy to them.


Ah so it’s Bernstein’s early version of Copland 3 for you…?


I guess it’s the one I grew up on so – (laughs).




Andriessen, L. and Schonberger, E. The Appolonian Clockwork on Stravinsky (Oxford University Press 1989)

Butterworth, N. Aaron Copland (Toccata Press 1985)


Copland, A. Copland on Music (Andre Deutsch Ltd, London 1961)


Copland, A. and Perlis, V. Copland since 1943 (Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd, London 1989)


Pollack, H. Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man (Faber and Faber Ltd, London 2000)

[1] The eight bars cut that are usually mentioned are those between R129 and R130.

[2] Recorded with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra in 1990 (BMG).

[3] Copland also said that Bernstein ‘has always understood my music almost intuitively. His conducting of the Third Symphony is closest to what I had in mind when composing the piece’ (Copland and Perlis 1989:69).

[4] Copland wrote ‘every twenty-year-old composer dreams of being played by Koussevitsky’ (1961:75). He spoke extremely highly of him, particularly with regard to the premieres of new American music: ‘if he doesn’t like it, it means that other conductors may perform it, but the special atmosphere that surrounds a Koussevitsky premiere will be lacking’ (p.75).

[5] Butterworth called the final movement of Copland’s Third the ‘musical kernel of the work’ (1985:104).

[6] Although Copland was also known to relish bad press ‘many a time he has chosen to repeat a work on the heels of adverse newspaper comment’ (Copland 1961:81).

[7] Bernstein explained to a Young People’s audience in 1958 that the work contained ‘a lot of these American qualities we’ve been talking about: jazz rhythms, and wide-open optimism, and wide-open spaces, and the simplicity, and the sentimentality, and a mixture of things from all over the world, a noble fanfare, a hymn, everything!’ (cited Pollack 1999:417)

[8] For Mark Wigglesworth’s interview, click here.

[9] ‘It is the “philosophy” behind the playing of the work that, in the final analysis, makes the difference’ (Copland 1961:75).

[10] For Hans Graf’s interview, click here.

[11] ‘They’re so arrogant. Not only can’t they play the irregular rhythms accurately, they won’t even try’ (cited Copland and Perlis 1989:355).