The music of Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and Samuel Barber—three American composers who each held many titles and served many roles in their working lives—is known the world over. For many audiences, both in the U.S. and abroad, their works form the core and the heart of our national symphonic tradition. Bernstein—the New York Philharmonic Laureate Conductor whose 100th birthday year we celebrate this season—reveled in his many roles, including educator, even public intellectual and musical philosopher. His fascination with the multiple facets of music found a special synergy in his working life, keeping him in the limelight. Barber, as distinguished teacher, and Copland, as fervent advocate, were just as crucial in shaping the American musical world we know today. For this composer, removed by only a few generations, it truly seems impossible to imagine music in America without them.
In the February 22–24 concerts that present their most iconic works, New York Philharmonic Assistant Conductor Joshua Gersen leads Copland’s Third Symphony (which includes Fanfare for the Common Man), Barber’s quietly anguished Adagio for Strings, and Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story (no mere suite of highlights from the musical, but a full-fledged orchestral wallop). Each piece, while emblematic of its maker’s oeuvre, has journeyed far beyond the concert hall and entered a wider consciousness, appearing everywhere from televised national ceremonies to films and even advertisements. Gersen says: “Hearing them all on one program gives us a very good sense of what American classical music was about in the 20th century.”
As young men, these composers came to national attention with music that was bold, clear, impassioned, and—in how they dealt directly with the American myth—can be called romantic. In the late 1930s and early 1940s Copland, with his ballets including Appalachian Spring, and Barber, with his Adagio, wrote works that came to define the musical age in the U.S. That was the period when Bernstein, then a student, spent the summer of 1940 at Tanglewood in a new training program for musicians, during which he studied with Copland. By the end of that course one of music’s more famous friendships had been cemented, and Bernstein would champion his mentor’s music for the rest of his life.
But it was a busy century, and all three of these composers saw their image change in the eyes of their contemporaries as musical tastes changed with the times. The cultural climate of post-war New York was a period of heady volatility—the ideas of modernism and the influence of the European avant-garde had taken firm root in art of all genres. By the 1950s some young American composers had embraced technical practices, such as 12-tone technique and other serialist approaches, as a kind of radical rejection of the tonal, romantic past. Barber and Bernstein were relatively young, but their musical style, along with much of Copland’s music, was swept to one side of a great aesthetic divide, which played out over the course of the century. All three wrestled with the new language and idiom in a personal way, but spent their final decades viewed by many as anachronistic in their own time. Bernstein shifted his work balance toward conducting; Barber died in a cloud of bitterness and depression.
But, as Gersen says, “They are more accessible than the atonal music of that time, and that in some way is the seed for their continued popularity.” A longer view gives us the chance to cycle back and take stock of the music itself. Composers of my generation have felt free to assess the work of each of these American masters, and, for many of us, the clear, noble voices of this trio are undeniable. Whether speaking of the 20th century or of the 21st, our still-relatively-young country can use all the eloquent storytellers it can get.
Sean Shepherd was named the New York Philharmonic’s first Kravis Emerging Composer in 2012. The Boston Symphony Orchestra premieres his Express Abstractionism this month.