One of the many successful students of revered composition teacher Nadia Boulanger, Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is perhaps best known for his works that exhibit an accessible yet distinctly American style. Copland was raised amidst the rich cultural scene of New York before pursuing composition at the American Conservatory, Fontainebleau and within the greater-Paris community. During this time, Boulanger was by far his most influential teacher. Upon his return to the United States, he enjoyed great success as a composer and forged powerful lifelong connections with conductors Serge Koussevitsky and Leonard Bernstein. Copland found his unmistakable patriotic voice in the late 1930s and early 1940s as a nationalist response to the Depression, and this spurred the creation of his most popular works: El Salón México (1932-36), Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942), Fanfare for the Common Man (1942), and Appalachian Spring (1944).
As It Fell Upon a Day (1923) for voice, flute, and clarinet is one of Copland earliest works, and the harmonic vocabulary is far more complex than the vernacular-style Americana works. The piece originated from a Boulanger composition assignment. Copland explained:
“I had been playing around with some ideas for the flute and clarinet assignment when I came upon a poem by the seventeenth-century English poet Richard Barnefield. ‘As It Fell Upon a Day’ had the simplicity and tenderness that moved me to attempt to evoke that poignant expression musically…The imitative counterpoint between the two instruments in the introduction would satisfy my teacher’s request. The harmonies that seem to evoke an early English flavor were suggested by the nature of the text.” **
The poem tells the story of two simultaneous happenings: a spring celebration and a nightingale’s solitary lament. The reference to the death of King Pandion suggests that this particular nightingale is Philomela, one of Pandion’s two daughters. Philomela was notoriously raped and mutilated by her sister’s husband, King Tereus, but eventually sought revenge and was transformed into a nightingale. The nightingale’s cries (Tereu, Tereu!) suggest an enduring accusation against her rapist. Ultimately, the poet sympathizes with the nightingale as all of the other birds cheerfully sing oblivious to her cries.
The text of Barnefield’s poem is as follow:
As it fell upon a day
In the merry month of May,
Sitting in a pleasant shade
Which a grove of myrtles made,
Beasts did leap and birds did sing,
Trees did grow and plants did spring;
Everything did banish moan
Save the Nightingale alone:
She, poor bird as all forlorn
Leaned her breast up-till a thorn,
And there sung the dolefull’st ditty,
That to hear it was great pity.
Fie, fie, fie! now would she cry;
Tereu, Tereu! by and by;
That to hear her so complain
Scarce I could from tears refrain;
For her griefs so lively shown
Made me think upon mine own.
Ah! thought I, thou mourn’st in vain,
None takes pity on thy pain:
Senseless trees they cannot hear thee,
Ruthless beasts they will not cheer thee:
King Pandion he is dead,
All thy friends are lapp’d in lead;
All thy fellow birds do sing
Careless of thy sorrowing:
Even so, poor bird, like thee,
None alive will pity me.
My favorite recording of this work is available via Naxos Music Library on American Vistas (Albany Records). Performers include Mimmi Fuller (soprano), Leone Buyse (flute), and Michael Webster (clarinet).
** Aaron Copland and Vivian Perlis. Copland: 1900 through 1942. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984) 90.