Why does this iconic music for brass and percussion, created at the request of Eugene Goossens, conductor of the Cincinatti Orchestra on the USA’s entry into WWII in 1943, make not just the creators of the video above, but also all of the rest of us, think about space?
In the past two months, as part of my recent role as accompanist to the Orpheus Choir of Toronto I had the privilege of helping it prepare a program dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the first manned moon landing on 20th July 1969. Among its beautiful and fascinating offerings of choral music interspersed with audio from NASA, Carl Sagan, the late President John F Kennedy and others, was the Canadian premiere of Tawnie Olson’s That’s One Small Step.
Olson freely admits to evoking Copland in the work’s second movement Longer Strides while setting John F Kennedy’s famous speech exhorting his country to support the space program. But what exactly did she do to reference this most quintessential of American composers, or more broadly to capture that spirit so important to American identity at the time?
It would be at best difficult, and at worst delusional to consider the cultural history of the moon landing without reference to the Cold War – this is a topic about which much has been written, and I won’t address it (although Olson certainly does in her composition). No, I am seeing a simpler musical connection from Tawnie Olson back to Aaron Copland and also – wait for it – the Star Trek “Original Series”, which debuted in 1966, and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey, which premiered in 1968.
The opening of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra which in 2001 A Space Odyssey was selected for the moment when the film posits our species’ move from simple threat and posturing of brute force to the more calculated use of weapons against one other. The work was composed in 1896, inspired by Nietzsche’s philosophical novel of the same name, and it was as surely a part of the sonic backdrop to the moon landing as were the iconic stacked fourths of Jerry Goldsmith’s theme from Star Trek‘s popular TV series, a visionary imagination of a diverse America in space.
Copland and other American composers were asked to contribute fanfares to the Cincinnati Orchestra because of a similar program that had solicited British composers to do the same during WWI. What Copland did in 1943, following Strauss’ example in Also Sprach Zarathustra, omitting the third from a conventional fanfare arpeggio, created a kind of ambiguity, a kind of modernity that was not the serial music of the 2nd Viennese School, and not the real or seeming randomness of aleatory and minimalism (all other significant movements in classical music at the time), but something based on fourths and fifths that somehow sounded like America’s aspirations that would ultimately lead it to put men on the moon.
The third of the chord, which had for centuries defined major keys against minor ones suddenly became – passé. As the world looked obsessively towards a post-World War future it needed something that sounded familiar enough, but that departed from the past with all of the ambiguity that modernity required. And so we built, and continue to build, tonal music based on fourths and fifths – because despite its ambiguity, it sounds like who we are.
So when Tawnie Olson set JFK’s famous words in melodic fourths and later harmonised them using techniques evoking Copland she was drawing upon a sonic axiom that is now deeply embedded in that country’s culture. It speaks, as did Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, to a deeply exceptional and aspirational concept of the United States of America.
With some hope, I wish that the USA, the country of my birth, will remain capable of someday becoming its mythologised, virtuous and noble self within a world that increasingly has to point out that it is not, and really has never yet been, that. The stars await.