05.28.2008

In The Beginning, Aaron Copland

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:15 am

A while ago I purchased a CD on iTunes entitled American Choral Music. The reason was because it contained a recording of Fern Hill by John Corigliano, which I was singing in Cal State Fullerton’s University Singers choir at the time; I fell in love with Fern Hill shortly after we began singing it, and it’s had my heart ever since. I’m sure I’ll post about it on this blog at some point. But the CD also contained a piece by Aaron Copland, called In The Beginning, which I had never heard or heard of before. I just listened to it again recently on my iPod.

It’s a setting of the biblical story of creation from Genesis 1:1 – 2:7 (King James Version), not versified in any way but just straight from the KJV text, for mezzo-soprano solo and unaccompanied chorus. The music is very accessible, and I must say I like this piece a lot. My previous experience with Copland had been confined to instrumental and orchestral music, and I was unaware of any choral repertoire; but considering how much I like this piece I may need to look into his choral works further.

Despite the challenges of setting prose text (which Copland of course handles masterfully) and unifying a through-composed piece, the creation narrative has a variety of recurring phrases, such as “And God said,” “And it was so,” “And God saw that it was good,” etc. These give Copland some chances for recurring motifs, which he uses to satisfactorily unifying effect. My favorite is his setting of “And the evening and the morning were the [first, second etc.] day”: he uses the same basic chord progression each time, with subtle variations–but each day is progressively one half-step higher than the last.

There is a lot of fun word painting in the piece, my own favorite being the sudden, clear high soprano entrance on the word “lights” in “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night”; you can almost see the first star flashing into existence in the night sky. The climax is at the very end of the piece, stretching all the voices to the top of their ranges for the phrase “And man became a living soul.”

Listening to the piece, which was composed in 1947, this last time, I heard many elements that reminded me of Eric Whitacre: the same type of word painting and chordal coloring that make Whitacre’s music so distinctive. I wonder if Whitacre’s style was at all influenced by Copland.

Homework for me: Look up Copland’s other choral music, and investigate Copland’s possible influence on Eric Whitacre.

Links for you:
     - In The Beginning Fact Sheet (from the Library of Congress
       Aaron Copland Collection)
     - First page of the score
     - Excerpt from In The Beginning, sung by the MIT Chamber Chorus

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