Slonimsky scorecard: Aaron Copland

Little by little, I plan to look at composers who were still living at the time Nicolas Slonimsky published bad reviews of their music in his Lexicon of Musical Invective. He compiled this most unusual and entertaining book because he believed in the idea of musical progress. The bad reviews, he said, from “non-acceptance of the unfamiliar,” and the subsequent popularity of these same composers proved that the critics were bad prophets.

It should, of course, be child’s play to find bad reviews of bad and now-forgotten composers. Slonimsky picked good composers. If he was a better prophet than the critics he quoted, then the living composers he sympathized with should all have more critical and popular acclaim now than they did when the bad reviews first appeared.

Slonimsky selected  five reviews of Aaron Copland’s Piano Concerto, all published between January 29 and February 5, 1927, that is, shortly after Copland played the world’s premiere of that piece with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  Here are parts of two of them:

Since there must be a bit of jazz in all American music nowadays, Mr. Copland has his measures in that view, but as one young man in the audience remarked, “No dance-hall would tolerate jazz of such utter badness.”

The jazz theme was a pretty poor pick, as those things go. But Mr Copland surrounded it with all the machinery of sound and fury, and the most raucous modernistic fury at that. The composer-pianist smote his instrument at random; the orchestra, under the impassioned baton of Mr. Koussevitzky, heaved and shrieked and fumed and made anything but sweet moans until both pianist and conductor attained such a climax of absurdity that many in the  audience giggled with delight.

A sixth review, by Lazare Saminsky in 1949, dismissed Copland as “the great man for small deeds,” “a shrewd manager of musique à success,” and a “flagrant example of composer propaganda” who chose to “sway his esthetics with the claims of the day.” He uses specific examples to justify this point of view, calling the Short Symphony “a quite bewildering piece of creative impotence,” Appalachian Spring “a feeble score” and “anemic and insignificant.” As to Lincoln Portrait, Saminsky sniped, “After a short-lived attempt at the grand line, the petit maître appears in all his nakedness.”

At about the same time Saminsky dismissed Copland at such length, most people interested in American concert music considered Copland the dean of American composers and America’s most important musical voice. The pieces he panned still begin anyone’s list of Copland’s best-loved works.

Therefore, at first glance, it looks like Slonimsky picked a winner. But let’s take a closer look. [BELOW IS NUMBERED LIST]

Those who disliked the Piano Concerto did not reject it because jazz was unfamiliar. They thought his concerto was bad jazz.
In the  1920s Copland had an attitude that he unknowingly shared with Arnold Schoenberg and Slonimsky himself, that modern composers had to write for a small audience of knowledgeable people, because the masses would only understand it later. Perhaps that explains why at least five critics thought he had written “meaningless, ugly sounds.”
Very little of the music he wrote with that attitude has remained successful with the public, whether it came before his his turn to a more popular idiom in the 1930s or after he decided to start writing more “difficult” works later in life.
Saminsky specifically attacked his best-loved pieces, not because they were unfamiliar, but because they were too familiar. Perhaps he would have preferred if Copland had continued to write “challenging” works for a small audience of intellectuals instead of “sway[ing] his esthetics with the claims of the day.” His invective, in other words,  does not embody the attitude Slonimsky wanted to exposed, but something very much the opposite. Saminsky seems to condemn Copland for pandering to a less advanced taste, even though quite capable of writing something more modern.

Because of the music Copland wrote to appeal to a broader audience, he remains a highly respected and beloved figure in American music. It is difficult to predict the future, but my guess is that the best of these pieces will remain as popular fifty years from now as they are today. Lesser pieces may or may not fall by the wayside. I doubt if future audiences will like the more difficult and esoteric pieces any better than the audiences up until this time.

Slonimsky picked a winner in predicting that future audiences would appreciate Copland’s music. People still perform and record Piano Concerto, but I know of no list of his best works that includes it. Time has pretty much repudiated Saminsky’s judgment, but that review in no way represents “non-acceptance of the unfamiliar.” Slonimsky gets a B- as a prophet for this chapter.

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