Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
Aaron Copland | The Promise of Living
“Europeans are not seeking freshness of music as much as American composers. The reason being that through their long tradition in music — they already know in advance what they are supposed to write.”
— Aaron Copland
Radio interview, 1950
Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is one of America’s most beloved composers, best known for works written in the 1930s and 1940s in a deliberately accessible manner he called his “vernacular style.” The Promise of Living is an excellent example of that style. It is the first-act finale of his 1954 opera The Tender Land, written with librettist Horace Everett (pseudonym of Erik Johns).
The opera tells the story of a poor 1930s Midwest farming family and the arrival in town of two drifters. At a local dance the family’s elder daughter meets and falls in love with one of them. They dream of eloping, but cooler heads prevail and the drifters move on the next day. The daughter, however, decides to leave home and make her way in the world, changing the family’s life forever. The opera ends as it had opened — wistfully, with the younger daughter dancing alone.
Copland drew his inspiration for the setting and characters from the enormously influential Walker Evans and James Agee book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, published in 1941. (Agee also wrote the poem “Sure on This Shining Night,” one of Morten Lauridsen’s Nocturnes later in this program.) Copland’s opera was far less successful than the Walker-Agee book: NBC Television Opera Workshop had commissioned the opera but ultimately rejected it for broadcast, and its poorly received New York première in 1954 had only a brief run. It is rarely revived in full, although a shortened orchestral suite based on its music is occasionally performed.
The Promise of Living, however, has proven far more enduringly popular. There are countless versions on YouTube — most of them choral, as here — but it has also been arranged for wind ensemble and even for orchestra. The populist sentiments of its words and its forthright, simple melodies have kept it in the choral repertoire for decades.