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The 'Great American Symphony': Aaron Copland's Third

In a letter to a colleague not long ago, the distinguished American composer William Schuman commended the attention being given new music in many circles, while lamenting the eclipse of the music of the recent past that so often goes along with it. ''New construction is fine,'' said he, ''but we do need the musical equivalent of a Landmarks Commission.''

Much is heard these days about a revival of Romanticism in contemporary music today. But, when the public hears this, it too often thinks of music that sounds like Mahler or other 19th-century high Romantics. Critics make the same mistake, far too prevalently, ignoring a major field of music produced well within this century. Schuman's quip is quite clearly referring to American music's ''Golden Age'' - comprising such impressive composers as Howard Hanson, Walter Piston, Samuel Barber, Peter Mennin, Bernard Rogers, Vincent Persichetti, David Diamond, Virgil Thomson, and Robert Ward. It is the music of these people and others, spanning roughly the period 1930-1960, that needs to be taken a lot further toward repertoire status, in order for us to arrive at a sufficient appreciation for what the United States, in particular, has produced.

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And when one starts thinking about enduring musical ''landmarks,'' there is one towering work from this great, ''golden'' era, that comes to mind - Aaron Copland's Third Symphony.

Anyone who has gone to school since 1930 has at some point heard talk of the Great American Novel, and wistful, curious conversations about who was going to produce it, when and where. Well, during all those years of awaiting the Great American Novel (according to the tradition), the Great American Symphony was definitively produced - at least it gets my vote.

Copland's Third Symphony was premiered in Boston in 1946, and promptly won the New York Music Critics Circle Prize, as well as many other accolades for its already celebrated composer. Copland was practically a cultural household word already, and this flower of postwar optimism simply added more gloss to a first-rate reputation. But more than any of this - than good spirits and grand gestures - the symphony sums up so well, even today, what has gone into, and come out of, American music during this century. So many of those perennially indescribable ''American'' traits are distilled into it: folklike melodies and open harmonies; jazz; moods of brash exuberance; and, over all of it, a sense of monumentality, of wide-openness, woven into a beautifully tight symphonic structure.

In today's musical scene we are all supposed to have repeated our lesson in chorus, ''The symphony is dead, the symphony is dead.'' As a message or a vehicle for our time, and as a mode of musical expression, the symphony is supposed to be considered irrelevant. If that philosophy's proponents would have us believe that, I'd first like to have them realistically deliver their polemic , square in the face of the enormous body of American symphonies alone, produced during the central years of this century. All those names that were mentioned above, in addition to Schuman himself, Paul Creston, Irving Fine, Gardner Read, George Rochberg, Elie Siegmeister, Nicholas Flagello, . . . That's an imposing body of literature, and the list could easily be extended. Aaron Copland's Third heads them all, I am convinced, in its skillfully mammoth symphonic treatment of diverse but native American musical idioms.

Symphonic treatment? Copland's Third Symphony, in fact, is also a fine source of illustrations as to how a symphonic composer begins with a tiny idea and ''treats'' it - shapes, reshapes, and recasts it into untold varieties of speed, key, inversion, and even emotional weight. The Third is permeated, over its 40 minutes' duration, with the opening motif and just a tiny bit more material. If space limits the examples to one, probably the best one is to see how the 2d, 3d , 4th, 6th, and 8th notes of the opening, by a beautiful mental gymnastic, are transformed into the first 5 notes of the second movement:

But, whether one is listening for these niceties, or simply enjoying the buoyant Americana of this first-class symphonic work, it can hardly be repeated often enough that . . . this piece can hardly be repeated often enough! At least until practically every concertgoer knows it as well as he knows the ''certified'' symphonic masterpieces of Brahms or Dvorak, and is conscious of Copland's as a cornerstone in a modern literature that is far from moribund.

Aaron Copland's Third Symphony - three recordings:

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* London Symphony, composer cond. Everest SDBR-3018

* Philharmonia Orchestra, composer cond. Columbia M-35113

* New York Philharmonic, Bernstein cond. Columbia MS-6954

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