This week we contrast two composers from opposite ends of the Atlantic, beginning with the American Aaron Copland. Born in Brooklyn to Jewish parents at the turn of the 20th century, he studied under the famous teacher Nadia Boulanger (sister of Lili Boulanger- see Kohnfused about Classical no.1) and went on to write several popular works including the “Fanfare for the Common Man” and “Appalachian Spring”. His biographer, Howard Pollack, said that while he lived openly with his partners, he was very private and never came out during his lifetime. The second composer is the British Ethel Smyth, the first female composer to become a Dame in 1922. A prominent member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (later the Suffragettes), she also trained as a radiographer, taking large breaks from composing to focus on these causes, but also writing works such as the “March of the Women”. Ethel Smyth had a relationship with Henry Brewster, who collaborated with her on her many operas, but also had many public relationships with women and was very close to both Emmeline Pankhurst and Virginia Woolf. With all of these achievements to her name, it’s unfathomable that she is considered ‘obscure’, particularly in relation to her almost exact contemporaries Delius, Elgar and Holst.
Copland - Hoe down from Rodeo
Give this about a minute and then I guarantee your brain will say “oh I know this one!” Opening with a setting of the folk tune “Bonaparte’s Retreat”, this work is just so uplifting, particularly the odd combination of strings and xylophone which are used to depict the titular dance, an American folk dance in “duple time” (two beats, rather than the more popular four in a bar) similar to a jig. This segues into various solo instruments playing a second theme playing a different, snappier theme, before the whole orchestra joins in. A particularly amusing moment is halfway through the action completely stops, and just uses wood blocks, piano and strings on the offbeat, with a clumsy double bass as if the participants have forgotten what is going on, or are just exhausted, before the music accelerates back into the theme- or not, as it almost falls back asleep, and then suddenly there it is, complete with punchy brass and percussion. The best recordings speed up into those final few notes.
Ethel Smyth - Overture to the Wreckers
This is one of Smyth’s most famous works, and is often performed independently of the opera it is intended to open. For context, the opera is set in a Cornish fishing village where the people make a living off plundering and ‘wrecking’ ships, but business has been running dry as someone is warning the ships. I think the overture portrays this with a stormy overture complete with flashy trombones, and then the more menacing French Horn tune which is overlayed with sweeter violins for a very unsettling effect, while the middle section is much calmer, with slower wind solos and muted strings. The last few minutes, the whole orchestra unites with a much more positive atmosphere that, like much of her contemporary Elgar, just ‘sounds very British’.