What was it like to rehearse with Leonard Bernstein, just a few months before he passed away?
Copland’s Symphony No. 3, 3rd Movement
Aaron Copland composed his iconic Symphony No. 3 for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, commissioned by music director, Serge Koussevitzky in 1944. A symphony had been simmering in Copland’s mind for a few years: he’d written out ideas and sketched out sections. But, Koussevitzky’s commission, and the end of the second World War, seems to have given Copland the deadline and tone he needed. The four-movement piece moves from a tense serenity at the outset to a euphoric salute to the common man at its finish. But before the final movement, with its brilliant elaboration on the composer’s famous Fanfare for the Common Man, there is an entrancing episode of slowly evolving music that is uniquely Copland: the third movement.
Copland composed the third movement in 1945 in Ridgefield, Connecticut, at a place he’d rented for its solitude. He told almost no one where he could be reached. He worked through the fall and winter, finally creating what he called the “freest” of the Symphony’s movements, “with its various sections intended to emerge one from the other in continuous flow.”
You may have seen this 30-second clip on social media a few weeks ago. Today, as many contemplate Grandparents Day and Rosh HaShanah, we’re bringing you Bernstein’s magical teaching and conducting of the contemplative, slow, “very personal” third movement.
The extended excerpt below comes from rare, found video footage of Bernstein rehearsing Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3, movements two through four, with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, before what would become his final concert with them — and penultimate concert at Tanglewood — on August 14, 1990. (Bernstein conducted his last concert at Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony Orchestra a few days later.)
For 39 minutes, Bernstein uses economic gestures and powerful words to free up the beauty of Copland’s overlapping strands of music.
(Advance access to the video below is limited to email subscribers of Classical.org.)
… there’s something very magical about this music…
The 3rd Movement: What to watch and listen for
The third movement of Copland’s Symphony No. 3 opens with high, hushed threads of unison strings that need to float in what Bernstein calls a “stasis.” It requires incredible focus and precision to create such a touching sound. As the rehearsal begins, Bernstein offers the players a clue on how to approach it [0:05 -1:24]:
Very inner … inside … inside the strings [sings sotto voce, while showing a trembling vibrato with his hand] … very personal.
When the first violinists have played their opening phrase, Bernstein is impressed. “Hey, not bad,” he says, continuing to conduct. “Not bad at all.”
After a full minute of playing, Bernstein stops the orchestra. He offers a great compliment, followed by a piece of advice [1:24 – 1:56]:
That’s much better than I’ve heard it in real performances of real orchestras!
Intonation … we could always squabble about that a little. We won’t.
What I would like to squabble about a little bit is the ‘seasick-making-ness’ of having a little crescendo on every upbow, and a little diminuendo on every downbow. That is bothersome.
Bernstein on “something very magical about this music” and playing legatissimo
Bernstein describes what Copland has done to create this magical sound, and then gives the players the key to unlocking it [2:14 – 3:02]:
What we need is this horizontal line, and a kind of stasis – just hovering there in space, and then there’s something very magical about this music — which we’ve heard — you know the audience dimly remembers hearing trombones playing it in the first movement [sings], and to have it come back in this absolutely static, mysterious way is very effective, only if you play it very piano and very ‘inside,’ if you know what I mean. And keep it all the same, whether it’s upbow or downbow. In other words, we shouldn’t hear any changes of bows. It’s legatissimo.
Bernstein’s reminders of how to listen and what to project are concise and powerful. Later on, as the music’s lines become more entangled, Bernstein has just eight words to help to define its spirit [4:40]:
It’s chamber music. Just for us. Very private.
Watch (and listen) to what happens when Copland’s music arrives at a tense climax — and then tumbles down like a leaf in the wind. It is amazing to see how well the young orchestra follows Bernstein [8:27 – 8:47].
One of the most gorgeous moments in this movement takes the form of just two chords. The first chord seems to melt into the second, and the atmospheric puddle becomes the cue for a beautiful flute solo. The first time through [starting at 9:43], the chords are beautiful. But listen to Bernstein’s advice on how to make them magical, and then [at 11:03], see how Bernstein switches his baton to his left hand, and uses his right hand to make the chords absolutely breathtaking [9:43 – 11:15].
Bernstein on how to improvise
One of the hardest things for classical musicians to do is to improvise. Even with the improvisation fully written out, there’s an art to creating a sense of spontaneity. Listen to Bernstein giving advice to the flutist who needs to pull this off in Copland’s score [13:31-15:02]:
… What you’re not doing is going forward with the music and coming back with it – it’s almost as though the dynamics and the rubato go hand in hand [sings] … see what I mean? I’d love to start this again – I guess we’re going to have to take a break – but I’d like to start this section again and …
Do you think we can start with the flute being like a piece of inanimate objects … just a [sings] it begins to wake up [sings and shapes gestures with his right hand] something’s added to it [sings] It sort of transforms itself into a living creature. Let’s start again …
Bernstein is masterful as he leads the orchestra into the movement’s dance section through a carefully calibrated acceleration, and even in this syncopated music, he conveys a quality of gentleness [18:40 –19:14].
The music that follows the dance returns to the “innermost mood” that the movement began with. It requires a lot of careful balancing. After some work, Bernstein and the orchestra give it such heartbreaking intensity that Bernstein, who has been in his chair for most of the rehearsal, is compelled to stand up [30:48 – 32:07].
The last movement arrives directly out of the third, beginning with the theme from the Fanfare for the Common Man. Watch how Bernstein adjusts the character of the hymn-like section just before the Fanfare [37:44 to end]:
Good, let’s see if we can get that better balanced. It’s in tune, but it’s not well balanced. More bass clarinet. And more like hymn singing, the way it was in the beginning. Severe. [sings] Remember how that was?
Yes, Bernstein, we do: simply magical.
Post updated: September 10, 2018
About this content
This previously unpublished footage is part two in a three-part Classical.org exclusive. Special thanks to the Tanglewood Music Center.
About this author
Cathy Fuller is a guest contributor to Classical.org. Follow her on Twitter @CathyClassical.