Copland: Fanfare for the Common Man

“When I speak of the gifted listener, I am thinking of the nonmusician primarily, of the listener who intends to retain his amateur status.  It is the thought of just such a listener that excites the composer in me.”

– Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland

Of all of Aaron Copland’s compositions, Fanfare for the Common Man is almost certainly the one most people would recognize.  Once heard, it is impossible to forget.  In his autobiography, Copland 1900 Through 1942 (co-authored by Vivian Perlis), Copland writes as follows about the genesis of this uncommon work:

Eugene Goossens, conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, had written to me at the end of August [1942] about an idea he wanted to put into action for the 1942-43 concert season.  During World War I he had asked British composers for a fanfare to begin each orchestral concert.  It had been so successful that he thought to repeat the procedure in World War II with American composers.

In fact, Goossens went on to request fanfares from 17 composers, including Walter Piston, Darius Milhaud, and Virgil Thomson, and even wrote one himself, but Copland’s is the only one that has remained in the active repertoire.

Additional information about this piece is provided on the Library of Congress website:

“Fanfare for the Common Man” was certainly Copland’s best known concert opener… Goossens, conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, originally had in mind a fanfare “… for Soldiers, or for Airmen or Sailors” and planned to open his 1942 concert season with it.

Aaron Copland later wrote, “The challenge was to compose a traditional fanfare, direct and powerful, yet with a contemporary sound.”  To the ultimate delight of audiences Copland managed to weave musical complexity with popular style.  He worked slowly and deliberately, however, and the piece was not ready until a full month after the proposed premier.

To Goossens’ surprise Copland titled the piece “Fanfare for the Common Man” (although his sketches show he also experimented with other titles such as “Fanfare for a Solemn Ceremony” and “Fanfare for Four Freedoms”).  Fortunately Goossens loved the work, despite his puzzlement over the title, and decided with Copland to preview it on March 12, 1943.  As income taxes were to be paid on March 15 that year, they both felt it was an opportune moment to honor the common man.  Copland later wrote, “Since that occasion, ‘Fanfare’ has been played by many and varied ensembles, ranging from the U.S. Air Force Band to the popular Emerson, Lake, and Palmer group… I confess that I prefer ‘Fanfare’ in the original version, and I later used it in the final movement of my Third Symphony.”

I can well understand Goossens’ puzzlement over Copland’s title.  Far from suggesting a common man, this fanfare embodies all the nobility and majesty that we might expect in a fanfare for a king, an emperor, or some other august personage.  I can easily imagine Copland wracking his brain for the title that best suited his music, and that he decided on “Fanfare for the Common Man” because, though happy to honor the common soldier, sail0r, and airman, he did not want to give his fanfare a title that might be seen as glorifying war.

In this video, we hear the New York Philharmonic conducted by James Levine in a live performance at Carnegie Hall.  Two things stand out as especially noteworthy about this performance.  The first is the extraordinary unison of the four trumpets at the beginning of the piece.  Except for the volume of their sound, we might easily imagine that we are hearing not four trumpets, but one.  The second is the concentration and precision of the timpanist, Roland Kohloff, principal timpanist of the New York Philharmonic for 32 years.  In one of the comments that accompany the YouTube video of this performance, Kohloff’s daughter, Jami Grassi, wrote the following tribute to her father:

So, maybe I dare to say, or not, the timpanist is my father, Roland Kohloff.  He never cared whether there was a camera on him or not, performing for one person or a million.  He just loved to play music.  Student of Saul Goodman’s, my uncle.  Musicians who play from and with heart make expressions with their faces and their bodies, conductors included.  All I hear when I listen to this is the beauty of each individual’s musicianship collectively playing together in this beautiful moment.  Most of these musicians, as my father, are no longer on this earth, but they leave a legacy through their perfor-
mance and with their families who love them.  For me, this is simply watching my papa play with his heart and his soul and I get to watch this and remember him forever.  I Love This.

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Published in: on May 29, 2017 at 7:22 pm  Leave a Comment  
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