It was written at the end of World War II. It is known as the essential American symphony that fuses his distinct "Americana" style of the ballets (Rodeo, etc.) with the form of the symphony, which has generally been a European-dominated musical form. The work can be seen as a pastiche of Copland's various compositional styles: the simple, pastoral lyricism of "Appalachian Spring", the boldness and liveliness of "Rodeo" and "Billy the Kid", the Latin American vigor of "El Salon Mexico". (Because of this, however, the work has been criticized as somewhat incoherent.) The Fanfare for the Common Man is used as a theme in the fourth movement. Various fragments from Fanfare are also used for primary thematic material in the first three movements.
The first movement (Molto moderato) opens with a simple theme on the woodwinds, which is echoed warmly throughout the orchestra before quickly heightening into a brassy fanfare (in which we get our first hints of the Fanfare for the Common Man theme.) The movement ends as peacefully as it started, but we are quickly snapped out of the reverie with the thunderous timpani thump that launches the lively scherzo into action. The whirling second movement (Allegro molto) features a dashing, boisterous theme, settling into gentler, pastoral segment but ending exuberently. The third movement (Andantino quasi allegretto) opens slowly and contemplatively, featuring Copland's typically sparse and almost ambiguous harmonies. It digresses into a frisky dance-like passage, vaguely Latin American in tone, before transitioning uninterrupted into the finale (Molto deliberator - Allegro risoluto), where we hear a variation on the Fanfare for the Common Man in its full glory. The duration of this movement is spent primarily with the development and recapitulation of the Fanfare melody: Copland gives it a dazzling contrapuntal treatment while at the same time managing to introduce an entirely new theme. The symphony closes majestically with a final reprise of both the Fanfare and the symphony's opening motif.
The overall tone of the work is one of heroism and dignity, and it leaves an appropriately stirring impression.
Note that the Fanfare in the Fourth Movement is not a direct copy of the stand-alone work Fanfare for the Common Man. There are numerous subtle changes, including a new introduction (a woodwind duet begins the Fourth Movement,) two key changes, and different percussion parts.
Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic have recorded what may be the best-known performance of the work, available on Sony Classical, previously on Columbia Masterworks Records. In the 1980s he re-recorded the piece with the same forces for Deutsche Grammophon.
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