The quintessentially American composer Aaron Copland explained the rousing, heroic tone of his Third Symphony, which he completed in 1946 and was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in that year, as a reflection of the "euphoric spirit of the country." The most destructive war in history was over, and America had been a beacon to the free world in dark times, so there was plenty to celebrate. Listening to the Symphony -- one of my all-time favorites -- the other day, Copland's words about it came to mind and I felt a shudder of sadness thinking how different that "euphoric spirit" is from the America we are living in today.
It's no secret that times are tough in America. As news reports bleakly spelled out today, unemployment is now at almost 10%. The economy is still hobbling while the national debt continues to surge. And the environment is everywhere under siege. From where most people sit, the future doesn't look too bright.
Call me naive, but even though I knew that when Obama took office he would face an absurd array of deep and seemingly intractable problems, I thought having an eloquent, compassionate, truth-speaking leader would give the American people some sense of hope; that he would somehow be a unifying voice in these challenging times. But I don't see much evidence of that happening. The political atmosphere is too poisoned for that, and Obama's campaign call for bi-partisanship seems all but dead. On top of that, the media remains intent on fueling the flames of division, especially the far-right demagogues who dangerously goad the public to channel their rage at the president.
While I can understand people disagreeing with the president's policies, I think his strength of character -- his intelligence, his decency, his eloquence -- is so obvious that we'd do well as a country to at least follow his example and agree to at least attempt a civil discussion about what we need to do to emerge from our collective funk. But, at least for now, it seems that no politician can rise about the pervasive cynicism. And so I'm giving in to the realization that Obama probably won't be that unifying voice, all the while knowing that our problem-plagued country needs such a voice more than it has in a very long while.
Which brings me back to Copland. What amazes me most when I listen to his Third Symphony is that although it is grandly patriotic -- he once thought to call the piece "For the Day of Victory" or "For the Spirit of Democracy" -- it is also universal. Perhaps more than any work by Copland, this is a unifying, all-embracing work. Stylistically, it combines the popular elements of his ballets with the structural rigor of his more abstract works. There are moments of extreme tenderness and vulnerability, but also climaxes of shattering power. It celebrates the ordinary citizen - the regular guy -- with the extraordinary splendor of the famous "Fanfare for the Common Man." Its finale is as triumphant as a piece of art could be, but it comes after some grinding dissonances that remind you of a massive machine mindlessly thrust into reverse. Victory may be assured, but it will not be easy.
I know that listening to Copland's Third Symphony won't stop the monthly job losses, or create renewal energy, or clean up the financial mess. But at least for me, hearing this amazing work will continue to keep my own hope alive for a better future for our country. I think Americans of all ages should listen to it and be reminded of the great achievements their country is capable of producing. At the very least Obama should upload it to his iPod -- if it isn't already there -- to help him keep his own spirits up through the difficult times ahead. He'll (we'll) - need all the help he (we) can get.
Listen: Bernstein's classic recording belongs in every music library. http://tinyurl.com/ybzhrfn
James Judd's budget-priced recording with the New Zealand Symphony is a worthy alternative: