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With celebratory ‘Ode,’ Copland noted changing times

Aaron Copland, circa 1932.
Aaron Copland, circa 1932. (Library of Congress, Music Division.)

On Sunday, the Boston Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Asher Fisch) finishes its Tanglewood season with its annual effectuation of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, paired with a last nod to the Tanglewood Music Center’s 75th anniversary: Fisch will lead the TMC Orchestra in Aaron Copland’s “Symphonic Ode” — a work already commemorating not one, but two BSO anniversaries. The 1932 premiere, conducted by Serge Koussevitzky, was part of a crop of novelties celebrating the BSO’s 50th birthday. When approached about a 75th-anniversary commission, Copland suggested a revision of the “Ode,” allowing that the BSO could name their price for “a refurbished piece in lieu of a new one” — though noting that Koussevitzky hadn’t paid for the piece the first time around.

And, anyway, the “Symphonic Ode” had only become a 50th-anniversary piece after Koussevitzky postponed the premiere multiple times. At the time, Copland had not yet cornered the market on neoclassical Americana with ballets like “Appalachian Spring” or “Billy the Kid”; rather, he was an enfant terrible, with a taste for harmonic harshness and tricky, asymmetrical rhythms. The metrical shifts in the “Ode” stymied the players — and Koussevitzky, who repeatedly delayed a public performance, even after Copland simplified the notation.

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The “Symphonic Ode” finally debuted to decidedly mixed reception: Its dissonance and monumental austerity, critic Philip Hale pronounced, couldn’t even be considered music. (At a symposium soon after, Copland vented his frustration: “Frankly,” Copland said, “I consider newspaper criticism a menace.”) The “Ode” promptly fell into obscurity. But Copland, who had toiled hard on the piece, remained proud of it, and, with the BSO’s invitation, seized the opportunity to reintroduce it, reducing the original’s extravagant instrumentation to standard orchestral dimensions, but otherwise preserving — and even restoring — its intricate severities.

Having already been working on his 12-tone “Piano Fantasy” (which he would finish in 1957), Copland, after revising the “Symphonic Ode,” orchestrated his equally stark 1930 “Piano Variations,” then embarked on a series of ever-more avant-leaning pieces: the string “Nonet,” the abstract “Dance Panels,” the orchestral essays “Connotations” and “Inscape.” Copland’s modernist streak was not merely youthful iconoclasm, but evidence of ongoing engagement with the tenor of contemporary life. In the manuscript of the “Ode,” he had tried out a possible subtitle: “Music for America.” As the optimistic America of the Roosevelt era had given way to Cold War divisions and unrest, Copland’s “Ode” — and his modernism — reemerged, appropriately annealed.

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The Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, conducted by Asher Fisch, perform music of Beethoven and Copland at Tanglewood’s Koussevitzky Music Shed on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. (tickets $20-$97; 888-266-1200, www.bso.org).


Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.