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Celebrating the Copland-Sessions Concerts

by Carol J. Oja

When the Copland-Sessions Concerts were launched in New York in the spring of 1928, modernism was young and the U.S. economy was booming. That same year, Herbert Hoover won the presidency in a landslide (his was the campaign that promised "a chicken in every pot, a car in every garage"), Mickey Mouse became an overnight sensation in Plane Crazy, Amelia Earhart flew across the Atlantic, and The New York Times mounted an animated electric sign on top of its building in Times Square.

Amid this glitz and glamour, Aaron Copland and Roger Sessions--two composers in their late twenties--staged a pair of concerts at the Edyth Totten Theatre on West 48th Street. Dubbing their enterprise "The Copland-Sessions Concerts of Contemporary Music," they had a straightforward goal. "It is in the interests of the younger generation of American composers," declared a manifesto in their opening program, "that the present series of concerts has been inaugurated." From the very start their arms were open wide to a diverse spectrum of new compositions. "American music will receive the chief emphasis though an occasional European work of corresponding interest may be included," they continued. "Furthermore, ‘youth' will be interpreted in the most elastic sense. Works by composers of more achieved reputation will also find a place provided they are appropriate to the nature of the program."

With an all-day symposium on April 1, 2000, sponsored by the American Composers Orchestra and Carnegie Hall, a group of composers, critics, performers, and scholars, including Arthur Berger, Michael Boriskin, Paul Lustig Dunkel, Vivian Perlis, Anthony Tomassini, Judith Tick, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, will explore the early days of mobilizing the avant-garde–a time when mailing lists were just beginning to be generated and audience-building was the name of the day.

The Copland-Sessions Concerts appeared during the second wave of composer organizing that completely transformed the musical landscape of New York during the 1920s, setting in place models that continue to serve composers today. In 1921, the International Composers' Guild, led by Edgard Varèse and Carlos Salzedo, had begun presenting modern music, and two years later the League of Composers appeared. These, in turn, had been preceded by two less well known but important ventures, the Franco-American Musical Society (begun in 1920 and later renamed Pro Musica Society) and the American Music Guild (begun in 1921). While these early organizations paid some attention to the generation of American composers born around 1900, they focused most intensely on either importing European modernism or showcasing Americans who were then in their late thirties and forties (figures such as Louis Gruenberg, Frederick Jacobi, Carl Ruggles, and Emerson Whithorne). By contrast, Copland and Sessions sought to put the twenty-something crowd in the spotlight.

A do-it-yourself attitude abounded during the period. American visual artists, for example, were not waiting for a call from the Metropolitan Museum but rather set up their own exhibit spaces. The Whitney Studio Club opened in 1918 to promote living American artists, and the Société Anonyme was founded two years later as an artist-initiated organization for displaying the newest work. During its first year, the Société Anonyme mounted a continuous series of six- week exhibitions. Some of them featured French and German modernists, but others presented the work of Marsden Hartley, Man Ray, and Joseph Stella.

Rather than one-person shows, Copland and Sessions staged group events. For Copland, this signaled the beginning of a lifelong mission--to cultivate change through building community and gain power through collective action. By the time the Copland-Sessions concerts ended in 1931, they had presented ten events–eight in New York and one each in Paris and London–featuring music by over thirty composers. The first piano sonatas of Roger Sessions and Roy Harris received their premieres at these concerts, as did Henry Cowell's Paragraphs for Two Violins and Cello, to cite only a few examples. For works such as Virgil Thomson's Capital, Capitals and Copland's Two Pieces for String Quartet, the series provided an opportunity for their first performance in New York, following a debut abroad. There was even a night devoted to music with film, highlighting a relatively new medium. Mechanical Principles and H2O opened the show (films by Ralph Steiner, music by Colin McPhee). Next came Surf and Seaweed (film by Steiner, music by Marc Blitzstein) and La P'tite Lilie and Actualités (films by Cavalcanti, music by Darius Milhaud). Copland's Music for the Theatre and Sessions's Black Maskers closed the program.

With the passage of time, the Copland-Sessions Concerts have increasingly been characterized as American-obsessed, with a special inclination toward composers who had studied with Nadia Boulanger. The repertory mentioned above shows this to have been at least partly the case. The music of Marc Blitzstein, Israel Citkowitz, Roy Harris, Walter Piston, Virgil Thomson, and others with a significant experience in France was notably present. But overall a far greater breadth of styles turned up on these concerts than has generally been acknowledged. Copland and Sessions reached out to the so-called "ultra-moderns" of the day, including the music of Henry Brant (at age 17!), Henry Cowell, Ruth Crawford, Dane Rudhyar, and Adolph Weiss and providing some of the earliest opportunities for these composers to have their music performed in New York. The refreshingly unclassifiable Carlos Chávez, who eventually became one of Copland's closest professional colleagues, enjoyed an inside track with the series.

Furthermore, in spite of its American boosterism, there was nothing provincial about this enterprise. By presenting two events abroad, Copland and Sessions made it clear that they recognized the importance of international exposure. And in New York they featured composers who were either recent immigrants or passing visitors. A partial list of such figures included Vladimir Dukelsky (Vernon Duke), Nino Rota (then studying at the Curtis Institute), Pál Kadosa and Istvan Szelenyi (both Hungarian pupils of Kodály who had captured the interest of Henry Cowell), Nicolai Lopatnikoff (a Russian then living in Berlin), and Imre Weisshaus (a Hungarian pupil of Bartók).

Any discussion of the Copland-Sessions Concerts must acknowledge the activities of a close sibling--the Pan American Association of Composers, which had been founded several months earlier in New York by Cowell, Chávez, Ruggles, and Whithorne (with Varèse as nominal president). In some ways the two groups competed with one another, but on the whole they were complementary, both in timing and constituency. While the Pan American Association worked toward the same general goal as Copland and Sessions, it defined "Americans" more broadly, hoping to "stimulate composers to make still greater effort toward creating a distinctive music of the Western Hemisphere." It got off to a slow start, presenting only two concerts in New York during the period of the Copland-Sessions Concerts (these occurred in March 1929 and April 1930). The heyday of the Pan American Association came in the 1930s, after the Copland-Sessions Concerts had ended. In 1931, Nicolas Slonimsky conducted a now-famous series of concerts for the Pan American Association in Paris and Berlin; two years later he presented a pair of concerts in Havana; and before the group folded in 1934, there was an increasingly substantial series in New York.

Before the Pan American Association gained steam, though, its composers found a forum with Copland and Sessions, giving a sense of New York's modernist community as mutually supportive. In challenging a largely conservative concert-music establishment, these groups faced a common enemy, and through their combined efforts, they helped American composers gain considerable ground. In 1926, two years before the Copland-Sessions Concerts began, Copland had declared that "the day of the neglected American composer is over." As it turned out, he wasn't kidding.

Carol J. Oja's most recent book, Making Music Modern: New York in the 1920s, is due out from Oxford University Press in the fall.

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