WASHINGTON, May 27, 2017 — “This is a fight between a slave world and a free world,” said Vice President Henry Wallace shortly after America entered the Second World War.
“Just as the United States in 1862 could not remain half slave and half free, so in 1942 the world must make its decision for a complete victory one way or the other… Perhaps it will be America’s opportunity to suggest the freedoms and duties by which the common man must live.”
And to honor the “common man,” upon whom the brunt of the global conflict rested, along with the task of saving Western Civilization, Eugene Goossens, conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, wrote a letter to American composer Aaron Copland requesting he write a piece that would be a “stirring and significant contribution to the war effort.”
Like an artillery salvo signaling the start of battle, the explosive booms of the tympani announce Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” which is the only one of eighteen such commissioned works (no one remembers Walter Piston’s “A Fanfare for the Fighting French”) to become a standard in concert halls around the world.
The brass horns that follow are both dirge and heroic anthem, reminiscent of Taps coupled with Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra.”
Five years before Copland’s fanfare’s premier, Adolf Hitler told a group of his generals that America was “a country without cultural foundations required of civilized societies. One Beethoven symphony contains more culture than America has produced in her whole history.”
By November of 1980, Edward Rothstein of the New York Times, no doubt angered by the election of Ronald Reagan as president, dismissed the composer’s tribute to the American fighting man as among Copland’s “slight works dated by their war-time sentimentality.”
Worse still for Rothstein, “The American public came to recognize itself in the music.”
In answer to Rothsteinesque nihilism, Father Denis E. O’Brien, U.S.M.C., wrote,
“It is the soldier, not the reporter, who gives us freedom of the press. It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech. It is the soldier, not the campus organizer, who has given us the freedom to demonstrate. It is the soldier, who salutes the flag, who serves beneath the flag, and whose coffin is draped by the flag, who allows the protester to burn the flag.”
While Copland’s piece plays, the mind’s eye can’t help but see Union Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain ordering his troops to fix bayonets and charge down Little Round Top, saving the day at the battle of Gettysburg in 1863; or U.S. Marine Captain Lloyd Williams telling passing French troops fleeing from the battle of Belleau Wood in 1918, “Retreat? Hell, we just got here”; or Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe of the 101st Airborne Division, whose response to the German surrender ultimatum at Bastogne in 1944 was an eloquent, “Nuts!”
“A masterwork,” wrote Copland, “awakens in us reactions of a spiritual order that are already in us, only waiting to be aroused.”