Aaron Copland: As it Fell Upon a Day, and The Sextet for Clarinet, String Quartet and Piano

April 10, 2012

When Copland was studying with Nadia Boulanger in Paris in the early twenties, one of his assignments was to compose a piece for flute and clarinet. He came upon a poem by the 17th century English poet Richard Barnefield and decided to add a voice part to the Boulanger assignment. Copland explained: “The poem had the simplicity and tenderness that moved me to attempt to evoke that poignant expression musically.” As It Fell. . . had its premiere in Paris in 1924.

This short work is considered Coplands first serious piece of composition. In 1965, upon Coplands retirement as head of composition at the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood, I was asked to participate in his retirement concert, performing both the “As it Fell” and the “Sextet for Clarinet String Quartet and Piano” which is Coplands own reduction of his second or “short ” Symphony ,originally composed for Orchestra.

Upon my question to Mr Copland, as to the reason for the Sextet, he responded that he could not get his Short Symphony performed, and so, made the Sextet as an arrangenet,suiitable for performance. Also on the program was Vitebsk, Study on a Jewish Theme, for Piano Trio, this work from the somber earlier work of the composer.

As a clarinetist, these two works have followed me around for the past 45 years, and for good reason. The Sextet has truly haunted me, That first performance was successful, but because my performance ,though adequate, was nervoudly played and I played sharp, which proved to be embarrassing for as long as I have played the clarinet. I have a great love for this piece, and having coached it with the composer himself and Mazzeo, my teacher, it became very important for my career and I have played it continuously since, just about every chance I get. It is a short lovely work of barely 15 minutes and has some of the most difficult ensemble playing, severe tuning problems because of strings constantly written in extreme registers . It is relentlessly rhythmic, and in truth, it works much better in the conducted synphonic version, and is seldom performed as a sextet because of these difficulites. There are many more instruments used as soloists in the symphony, and so the interdependance is shared by an orchestra and of course, always conducted. In perhaps a couple dozen performance of the Sextet, there have been few that I can say were perfect or totally accurate. Close, bu I have no cigar. There have been exciting performance, for it is truly an exciting creation, no matter what slight accidents may occur.I can still remember driving with my wife Linda, on the Taconic Parkway, either going to New York City or back to Tanglewood, the two of us singing those canons and stretti, sometimes blowing the horn in 7/4 time as it is in the piece, causing a hell of a racket! (It was wonderful) I have had numerous requests for asking someone to conduct the Sextet. Perhaps I should have, or considered it, but never did. If one gets the opportunity, take advantage and play this wonderful piece, but,take good care.

“As it Fell Upon a Day is much less challenging, with only the flute and clarinet being smewhat problematic, but the Soprano needs to be able to sing in a simple, though perfectly in tune manner.

I still remember Copland hearing me playng the opening clarinet solo: “you have a very big tone” It was not a compliment. I was too loud. He was a very gentle man.The many stretti and canons in the sextet, always syncopated and written across the bar line, make it a challenging work Always request advanced and experienced players. Though the individual parts appear simple, the ensemble becomes quite complicated. If you have the time to get it together, it is a great piece.

keep prcticing and stay well.
Happy Holidays,