Seeing where our musical interests take us

It’s interesting to see where our musical interests take us.

Since yesterday was Thanksgiving here in the United States, this morning I decided to listen to some music that I associate with the holiday. The first thing I thought of was Aaron Copland’s great orchestral piece “Appalachian Spring.” Copland practically invented the “Americana” style of classical music, and “Appalachian Spring” makes prominent use of the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts.”

Instead of listening to the orchestral version of the Shaker section (which is at the end of the longer piece), I wondered if there was a note-for-note version arranged for piano. I found this: Appalachian Spring

It’s refreshing to hear this on piano. Sure, it loses something in terms of orchestral color and I do miss the opening clarinet solo. But this is something I can learn on piano!

Although Copland’s use of harmony and texture owes something to European composers like Stravinsky and Poulenc, he has filtered them through his unique sensibility and produced something that is all his own. For one thing, he doesn’t develop his themes in a traditional way. (If you want to hear that, listen to some David Diamond, who for me is kind of like “Aaron Copland meets Beethoven.) Copland seems to have taken the song’s plea for “simplicity” to heart and has written very simple transitions between thematic statements. Almost too simple, for my taste, since I think his music would flow better if he led into each section with a greater sense of “inevitability.” But I’m trying to listen to him on his own terms and am slowly coming around to what he intended. He had something to say and I want to hear what it was!

While I was listening to the piano arrangement linked to above, I remembered that Copland was highly influenced by Nadia Boulanger, who taught him composition in Paris. I found this fascinating article about her teaching methods. (Quincy Jones, incidentally, studied with her as well.) Among other things, I noticed that she placed great emphasis on achieving a stylistic unity. She didn’t care what style you wrote in, as long as you were consistent. In other words, she didn’t want you sounding like Bach one minute and Beethoven the next. So that’s why Copland made his transitions so basic! It’s a hymn to simplicity, so he honored this in the music as much as he could. Even the “complex” passages have a directness about them that must have taken a lot of self-discipline to write. No showing off here. Copland assimilated what he learned from his teacher and poured it into his best-known work. “Appalachian Spring” was written in 1944 and continues to influence composers today. You can hear echoes of it in many movie scores and even in the harmony used in pop songs, alternative rock, and jazz.

So the next time you have a few spare minutes, see where your musical interests can take you. You may be surprised!

Here’s one of the biggest ways you can play better piano.

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