Reading & Listening – Concert Music Aaron Copland & George Gershwin

What is “classical music”?


In this assignment we’ll focus on two of America’s best-known composers of what is often called “classical music” – Aaron Copland and George Gershwin. Though this use of the word “classical” is not a very precise one, the term is commonly used to describe a certain kind of music that comes from a centuries-long European music tradition. This music is thought to be different from folk, from blues, from jazz, from country, from rock & roll, etc.
Another of America’s best-known composers, Leonard Bernstein, once talked about what distinguishes “classical” music from other genres, in a “Young People’s Concert” he gave in 1959. In his lecture to the audience
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he explores many terms that have been used for this music including “classical music”, “art music”, “good music”, “serious music”, and even “long-hair music” – but rejects them all because they are not accurate enough. Then he experiments with the term “exact music”. Though he’s not sure that’s a great term, either, it helps describe the nature of this sort of music.
The real difference is that when a composer writes a piece of what’s usually called classical music, he puts down the exact notes that he wants, the exact instruments or voices that he wants to play or sing those notes – even the exact number of instruments or voices; and he also writes down as many directions as he can think of, to tell the players or singers as carefully as he can everything they need to know about how fast or slow it should go, how loud or soft it should be, and millions of other things to help the performers to give an exact performance of those notes he thought up. (Leonard Bernstein at 100)


Ragtime and Stride Piano

If you think back to our assignment studying ragtime and stride-style piano, you might remember that an essential difference between those two styles was that ragtime is composed while stride piano is improvised. You can find sheet music for a ragtime piece, since a composer set it down “on paper”, while the stride piano song may be just made up from the player’s head. This correlates to the difference between “classical” music, in which the composer writes down exactly what she is thinking of, and jazz, in which the players create the music as they go (though still following a shared set of rules).
Note, by the way, that Bernstein shows a bias in describing all composers as male.


The Question

How did Copland and Gershwin depart from “classical music”?

From the colonial period into the 1800s, there had been American composers of “classical music” who copied the traditions of Europe. In their orchestral music, Copland and Gershwin made use of performing forces that had been used in the European symphonic classical music tradition, including brass instruments like trumpets and trombones, stringed instruments like violins, cellos, and basses, wind instruments like clarinets and flutes, percussion instruments, pianos, and other instruments. We’ve seen many of these instruments used in American styles of music we’ve studied so far.
Copland and Gershwin wanted to change the sounds made by the orchestra to reflect the American styles and sounds they heard around them. To do that, they composed music that included exact instructions like those Bernstein mentioned, that would show the orchestral players how to play in such a way to make sounds from American folk, jazz, and other styles. For example, they included instruments in the orchestra like saxophones from a swing jazz band, asked brass players to use mutes like jazz players, and asked violin players to play without vibrato like in some folk styles. These were sounds that you wouldn’t hear in a composition by a European composer, and reflected a distinctly American “voice” in an old European music tradition.


You’ll hear more about how successful these composers were in the video excerpts below. (Ironically, the person discussing this American music is a famous English conductor, Simon Rattle!) As you listen to the documentary examples, think about the questions below. It will be your discussion topic this week.


What are some examples from the documentary clips that illustrate a national “voice” expressed through music by these composers?

How did these composers make use of unique American sounds?

Were audience reactions always positive?

Let such questions not worry you; we are here to help…

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