COPLAND: FANFARE FOR AMERICA – A Film by Andreas Skipis

by Walter Simmons



COPLAND: FANFARE FOR AMERICA ● A Film by Andreas Skipis ● ARTHAUS 101 573 (DVD: 60:00)

This is an excellent overview of Copland—his life, his musical style, and his place in the history of American music. Many subscribers to this publication who read the foregoing sentence are likely to think to themselves, “I already know all that.” This DVD is not designed for those readers.

The visualization comprises some historical footage, as well as on-camera commentary by conductor Hugh Wolff, also seen conducting generous excerpts from some of Copland’s best 
known pieces, played by members of the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra; and by Howard Pollack, musicologist at the University of Houston and the author of an important recent biography of the composer; there is also some commentary by the composer himself. Pollack contributes some of the most interesting insights into the composer’s personal history and character. His remarks are set in a variety of venues that proclaim “New York City.” The excerpts of Copland’s music are also accompanied by footage of New York City, including the Brooklyn neighborhood where the composer grew up. At first it was a little disconcerting to hear “Hoe-Down” while watching a scene of traffic on the FDR Drive, until it occurred to me that perhaps this is underlining the point that Copland’s evocations of cowboys and the Wild West, of Appalachian pioneers, of Mexico, et al. were all conceived by a lifelong resident of New York City. The footage of the musicians is also enhanced by some unusual visual effects. 

Perhaps the aspect of the documentary most interesting to more knowledgable viewers is the fact that this is a German production, and thus provides a German perspective on Copland and his place in American musical history. Although the on-screen commentary is presented in English by Americans, there is also the voice-over narration in German, presumably written and perhaps spoken by the director Andreas Skipis (with optional sub-titles in English, French, or Spanish). The bias is most apparent toward the end when the anonymous narrator states, “Along with Ives, Gershwin, and Bernstein, Copland represents the American chapter in the history of music.” When I picked myself up off the floor, I reflected on what a short and largely peripheral chapter that would make, within a German history of music.

My other quibble involves a point made by Hugh Wolff, during a segment on Copland’s Third Symphony. Wolff points to the influence of Mahler on this work. Not only is this true only if one assumes that all grandiose 20th-century symphonies are influenced by Mahler—a ridiculous assumption—but it also overlooks several important factors: 1) that Copland’s Third was not unique, but one of dozens of grand American symphonies composed during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s; 2) that the Third Symphony (composed just a few years after Shostakovich’s Fifth) was really Copland’s attempt at creating an example of symphonic Socialist Realism, American style. If one wants to argue that Mahler was an influence on Shostakovich, that is a legitimate point—but that doesn’t necessarily make him an influence on Copland.

In summary, this is an informative introduction to Copland and his music, probably most appropriate for non-Americans, whose general background regarding American music may be limited. Most Americans who care about Copland will probably be familiar with this information, while those Americans who aren’t probably don’t care about Copland.