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A trumpet blast for WWII Americans.

Conductor Eugene Goossens thought it would be nice to begin each performance of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's 1942-1943 concert season with a different musical fanfare. So he wrote to the best composers in America: "It is my idea to make these fanfares stirring and significant contributions to the war effort."

Goossen soon had commissioned 18 men to write 18 fanfares. One of these short pieces for brass and percussion became part of the standard orchestral repertoire and remains part of it today. The composer was Brooklyn-born Aaron Copland, and he titled his piece "Fanfare for the Common Man" in honor of the average American who was fighting the war overseas or on the home front. Goossen like the idea and suggested, "If it is agreeable to you, we will premiere it 12 March 1943 at income tax time." Copland was agreeable: "I was all for honoring the common man at income tax time."


Copland had long been interested in America's indigenous music. He loved jazz and the peculiar blends of international folk styles that had become American folk. As a composer, he wanted to break American orchestral music away from its European foundations and create a distinctive sound based on the indigenous styles. His critically regarded compositions Appalachian Spring and Billy the Kid reveal a musical mind steeped in the sounds and mystique of America.

Some critics have said "Fanfare for the Common Man" summons imagery of the American heartland. There seems to be some truth to that. The piece gets its unmistakable fanfare sound by confining its palette to the capabilities of valveless brass instruments such as bugles, which can play only the limited pitches of the harmonic series. The melody leaping from pitch to pitch accompanied by simple, folk-like harmonies, is reminiscent of bugles on the battlefield, giving the fanfare an air of pride and nobility. With the tympani booming under the brass and the whole thing reverberating in a concert hall, it's easy enough to associate Copland's fanfare with the vast open fields and towering mountains that define the mythical American landscape. "Fanfare for the Common Man" sounds like America itself.

Ironically, this quintessential short American orchestral piece needed the help of some Brits to reach its widest audience. The progressive rock band Emerson, Lake, and Palmer scored one of its biggest hits with its recording of the three-minute piece in 1977. More ironically, the father of American symphonic music briefly found himself under government investigation. Having defended the Communist party during the 1936 presidential election (though he wasn't a member), Copland got caught in the flak of the Red Scare in the 1950s. He came through the ordeal relatively unscathed. As some of his supporters argued, his music was too American for him to be un-American.

Carl Zebrowski

managing editor of America in WWII

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Title Annotation:78 RPM
Author:Zebrowski, Carl
Publication:America in WWII
Date:Jun 1, 2006
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