- The American Stravinsky: The Style and Aesthetics of Copland’s New American Music, the Early Works, 1921–1938 by Gayle Murchison
Widely regarded as the quintessential composer of American music, Aaron Copland played a crucial role in the development of twentieth-century art music. From his early experimentation with jazz idioms to the incorporation of folk tunes in his later compositions, the Dean of American Composers was dedicated to creating music with a distinctly “American” sound. Scholars often debate the source of inspiration for this artistic vision and how Copland achieved his compositional style, with each argument contributing to a richer understanding of the composer’s works. Taking this important discussion one step further, Gayle Murchison, in her The American Stravinsky: The Style and Aesthetics of Copland’s New American Music, the Early Works, 1921–1938, delves into Copland’s compositions, arguing convincingly that Copland did not simply see himself as an American composer, but rather a modern American composer. Offering a detailed investigation of Copland’s life and careful analysis of his early musical compositions, Murchison reveals the distinctly modernist tendencies permeating his works. Indeed, throughout her thorough study, she successfully challenges the standard convention of dividing Copland’s career into stylistic periods. Instead, she demonstrates how Copland maintained consistent compositional techniques throughout his career, shifting only the “foreground elements of his music or the source of his borrowed melodies and rhythms” (p. 234). This crucial discovery within Copland scholarship reveals a compositional consistency underlying Copland’s oeuvre that had not yet been clearly addressed.
Targeting a musically literate audience, Murchison, in an eloquent, well-executed, and accessible manner, reveals Copland’s adaptation of modern European compositional techniques, and explains how he made them his own. Murchison’s strong musical analysis and accompanying score excerpts are a particular highlight of this study. She offers a fresh understanding of Copland’s groundbreaking works through the lens of modern European influence, while providing a language with which to discuss Copland’s complexity. Moreover, she builds upon the seminal studies that came before her; by combining the sociohistorical context of Copland’s life with detailed musical analysis of his modern compositional techniques, she ultimately reveals Copland’s lifelong commitment to creating modern American music.
The text proceeds chronologically, further contributing to Murchison’s argument, for one may easily observe the same modernist elements pervading Copland’s compositions throughout the decades. Introducing Copland’s early fascination with European modernism in chapter 1, “Scherzo humoristique (Cat and Mouse),” Murchison explains Copland’s early adoption of these ideals while in secondary school, which he learned by attending live performances, listening to contemporary recordings, and independent score study. She notes that “before he had even graduated high school, Copland had been exposed to the music of the leading European modernists, ranging from Debussy to Stravinsky” (p. 12). Highlighting this influence on Copland’s early compositions, she provides a detailed analysis of Scherzo humoristique (Cat and Mouse), highlighting Copland’s early exploration of an ultra-modern style. She first illuminates Debussy’s influence on Copland’s use of pentatonic and whole tone scales before arguing convincingly for Stravinsky’s role as “the composer after whose music Copland modeled his own” (p. 29). Citing octatonicism, black and white key division, the importance of the tritone, and the use of VII-I harmonic progressions, her analysis clearly attributes Stravinsky’s Petrushka as the inspiration for Copland’s early modernist work. Indeed, it is during this early stage that Copland began developing the modernist style that remained consistent throughout his career. [End Page 132]
Paris marked the next step in Copland’s compositional development, and, as Murchison explains in chapter 2, “Boulanger and Compositional Maturity,” it is here that he grew from an eager young student to a mature composer. With Boulanger’s emphasis on technique, her concept of la grande ligne, and her fostering of Copland’s interest in Stravinsky, Copland’s well-renowned teacher left...