Program Notes

2005 Spring – The Tender Land – Copland

Songs from The tender Land by Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland would probably be a shoo-in as America’s greatest 20th-century classical composer. Born in Brooklyn in late 1900 to Russian-Lithuanian immigrants, he learned piano from an older sister, and learned hard work in his parents’ department store, downstairs from their apartment. He was composing before he became a teenager, and in his 20’s studied in France, most especially with Nadia Boulanger-the first American student of this teacher who shaped much of 20th century music. Back in the US, he managed to attract the attention of Serge Koussevitzky, and later Leonard Bernstein. While he was initially much taken with the avant-garde, his 1930’s work gravitated toward a simpler model, making use of much existing music for such works as Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, and Rodeo. His contributions in that period also included an opera, The Second Hurricane, intended for high school production. It was one of only two operatic works in his eight-decade career; the other, The Tender Land, was intended for television, in honor of the thirtieth anniversary of the League of Composers (and was commissioned in 1952 by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein for that purpose). The libretto was written by “Horace Everett” (Erik Johns), based on James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”, and tells the story of a farm family –a single mother, her father, and two children. Laurie, the opera’s central character, is about to graduate from high school, and her direction is altered when two itinerant men are hired to help with the farm work.

Unfortunately, NBC turned down the proferred opera, and it was instead produced first by the New York City Opera, on April 1, 1954; revised slightly, it was presented again at Tanglewood on August 2 of that year, and, with much additional revision-which made it a full three-act opera, from the two with which it was first seen-on May 20, 1955, at Oberlin College. It has seen only rare performances since, but Copland constructed an orchestral suite from its music in 1958, which has had much more exposure. Three numbers exist outside the suite, but are often performed along with it: One is “Laurie’s Song”, a soprano aria; the others are the two choral numbers presented here: “Stomp Your Foot!” which is subtitled “Choral Square Dance”, and “The Promise of Living”, described as a “Thanksgiving song”.

J. R. Fancher, Mar. 2005