ithout much fanfare — well, actually, with fanfare — the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO) has played a key role in the shaping of American popular culture as we know it.
That’s the contention made — a bit indirectly — by Sean Wilentz, a Princeton University professor, in his recent book Bob Dylan in America. (He is also historian-in-residence for Dylan’s website, www.bobdylan.com.) Wilentz’s claims are based on the fact that the CSO commissioned American composer Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” during World War II.
In his book, Wilentz believes that Copland played a key role in shaping Dylan’s musical aesthetic and, in turn, so much of the American music and cultural attitude that he has influenced.
The CSO premiered “Common Man” as one of 18 fanfares that composers wrote for its English-born conductor, Eugene Goossens, in 1942-1943 to honor the U.S. military and its allies during World War II. Although they have evolved greatly, partly thanks to Copland’s “Common Man,” fanfares traditionally are short pieces featuring trumpets and snare drums and announcing or honoring important ceremonial events or persons.
“It’s certainly the most-recognized piece of American (Classical) music,” says Paavo Jarvi, CSO’s current music director and a native of Estonia, of the Copland piece. “Without a doubt, it’s something important and can add a lot to our history.”
Wilentz’s spotlight on the Copland-Dylan connection comes as the orchestra is midway through premiering five new fanfares commissioned to honor Jarvi’s10th and final season with the CSO (as well as WGUC’s 50th season as a Classical music public radio station). The third, Count Up, by young Toronto-based composer/pianist Stewart Goodyear (see interview, page 24), debuts Friday and Saturday, following a preview CSO performance of it Thursday at Fairfield High School Performing Arts Center. (He will also play a Bach piece on the orchestra’s new nine-foot Steinway piano.)
The subsequent two fanfares are by Charles Coleman (to be performed on May 6 and 7) and Erkki-Sven Tuur (May 13 and 14), Jarvi’s finale. Fanfares by Jonathan Holland and Jorg Widmann have already been performed. This is but the third time the CSO has commissioned fanfares — it also did so for its centennial, during the 1994-95 and 1995-96 seasons.
Goodyear, who has worked with both the CSO and Jarvi previously, is excited about his opportunity to add to CSO’s illustrious fanfare history.
“This is a happy anniversary with many more years to come, wishing the maestro well and predicting triumphs in the future as well as celebrating his 10 years in Cincinnati,” Goodyear explains. “So there are musical equivalents to counting up to 10. I think composers take the responsibility of composing fanfares very seriously because it is an act of love for whom you’re composing for.”
Usually, music historians say Dylan’s chief influence was the 1930s/1940s leftist-populist ballads and Talking Blues of folksinger Woody Guthrie and his cohorts. The roots of that music, Wilentz explains, are in the Popular Front politics of the era, in which artists — often with connections to the Communist Party, a powerful force in fighting for equal rights in Depression-era America — sought to connect with “the people” by addressing their interests.
Wilentz thinks Copland has served, in his way, as a crucial model for Dylan, especially in the political ambitions and populist musical approach of his most famous piece, “Common Man.” (It was titled after a speech by Franklin Roosevelt’s leftist vice-president, Henry Wallace.) Earlier, in 1938, Copland had written the groundbreaking ballet “Billy the Kid,” featuring a composing style he called “imposed simplicity,” which used Americana themes and incorporated Folk tunes into its score.
“Copland’s beloved compositions of the late 1930s and the 1940s … contained some of the same leftist political impulses that drove the forerunners of the Folk-music revival of the 1950s and 1960s,” Wilentz writes. “Dylan, meanwhile, grew up in a 1940s America where Copland was becoming the living embodiment of serious American music.”
The author continues, “Copland’s music and persona had no obvious or direct effect on the kinds of music Dylan performed and wrote as a young man, but the broader cultural mood that Copland represented certainly did. And insofar as Dylan’s career has in part involved translating the materials of American popular song into a new kind of high popular art — challenging yet accessible to ordinary listeners — his artistic aspirations are not dissimilar to Copland’s.”
All the CSO’s commissioned wartime fanfares came from well-regarded composers of the time, although none have fared as well in history as “Common Man.” Other fanfares were dedicated to commandos (Bernard Rogers), airmen (Leo Sowerby), The Merchant Marines (Goossens), Russia (Deems Taylor), forces of the Latin American allies(Henry Cowell), the American soldier (Felix Borowski), the Medical Corps (Anis Fuleihan) and several with broader themes like Morton Gould’s “Fanfare for Freedom” and Darius Milhaud’s “Fanfare de la Liberte.”
One reason Copland’s “Common Man” towers above them is it has become ubiquitous, part of modern Classical music’s repertoire and popular among Rock musicians like Emerson, Lake & Palmer. And it has been used on television and at sporting events. Copland even based his Symphony No. 3 on it.
Wilentz believes Copland’s “Common Man” is markedly different in construction from other fanfares, calling it “perhaps the most austere fanfare ever written,” as opposed to the “brief and snappy” model. He sees it as “a subtly esoteric piece of music written for the democratic masses, as well as to honor them.”
Jarvi, too, believes in breaking with fanfare tradition.
“What we call ‘fanfare’ today is a symbolic name for the project,” he says. “They’re not going to be fanfares in the old-fashioned sense. What we’re really doing is commissioning new music — that’s one of the important things an orchestra does.” (The CSO has commissioned many works besides fanfares.)
“If nothing else from my 10 years here, I want people to remember they heard a lot of music they hadn’t heard before,” Jarvi adds. “And, at the end of day, what if we find another important piece that remains in repertory and captures the imagination of the public and maybe is played by other orchestras as part of regular concert programming? Out of every 200 commissions, you might actually get something that remains in the history of music, so it’s very important.”
And if one of these five new fanfares does that, it will be in keeping with the legacy created by Goossens and Copland for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
CINCINNATI SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA (cincinnatisymphony.org), along with Stewart Goodyear, presents Weird. Wild. Wonderful. (which includes Goodyear’s commissioned fanfare for Paavo Jarvi and WGUC) Friday and Saturday at Music Hall.