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In Copland’s ‘Ukulele Serenade,’ echoes of an era

An undated photo of Roy Smeck, the “Wizard of the Strings.”

On March 13, violinist Arnaud Sussmann and pianist Orion Weiss perform a recital in Concord including Aaron Copland’s “Nocturne” and “Ukulele Serenade.” The pieces, premiered in 1926, are more prickly and provocative than Copland’s later, familiar neo-classical Americana. The “Serenade,” especially, pushes boundaries. Rhythms tumble; melodies scurry and, in the violin, skid into woozy quarter-tone corners. It’s Copland’s impression of hot jazz: brittle, agitated, with angular, tripwire syncopations. However, except for a short bit of strummed violin pizzicato, what it doesn’t seem to sound all that much like is a ukulele. But maybe Copland wasn’t chasing the instrument itself, but rather the milieu into which it settled.

The ukulele, a Hawaiian adaptation of small guitars brought by Portuguese immigrants, became a fad on the strength of two show-business phenomena. First was “The Bird of Paradise,” Richard Walton Tully’s “Madam Butterfly”-like Hawaiian drama, which opened in Los Angeles in 1911, on Broadway the following January, and thereafter toured for years, almost always featuring Hawaiian musicians. Even more influential were twice-daily performances by George A. K. Awai’s Royal Hawaiian Quartet at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, featuring the ukelele and the lap-steel guitar (another Hawaiian innovation; its swaying nasality created its own vogue).


Cheap, portable, easy to play, the ukulele achieved jazz-age ubiquity. In vaudeville and on Broadway, it took star billing in novelty acts. Copland’s “Serenade” seems to channel two of the era’s most famous practitioners. The offhanded strumming echoes Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards, who parlayed an easygoing comedic style into stardom on Broadway and Hollywood (most famously as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in “Pinocchio”). The faster sections evoke the high-energy virtuosity of Roy Smeck, the “Wizard of the Strings,” who attacked the instrument with a barrage of tricky, intricate, and even unorthodox techniques.

Copland was fascinated with popular and vernacular music, but he tended to use more stylized, synopsized versions as models. (His epitome of jazz, for instance, was the novelty ragtime of Zez Confrey, of “Kitten on the Keys” fame.) Perhaps Copland thought such novelty acts distilled something essential that remained subdued in performances closer to the original source. In his most overtly jazzy works, swing is abstracted away, replaced by a jittery, quasi-Cubist bustle that verges on satire. In retrospect, maybe the ukulele in Copland’s “Serenade” should be heard as Neronian: frantically strumming away as the jazz age burned.


The Hammond Performing Arts Series presents violinist Arnaud Sussmann and pianist Orion Weiss on March 13 at 3 p.m. at the Performing Arts Center at 51 Walden, Concord. Admission is free but reservations are recommended; 978-369-3999;

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at