RSO Blog: Preparing for American Salute

Once upon a time, in a not-too-distant past, concerts didn’t have titles. In today’s marketing-driven world, they do, and this can occupy a surprising amount of time and effort. Sometimes, even though the program is chock-full of exciting music, the just-right, succinct, catchy phrase guaranteed to sell tickets is elusive.

Not so with March 28’s concert! “American Salute” comes straight from the title page of the opening work, the most famous composition by the great and prolific Morton Gould. Gould could have called this “Variations on a Civil War Tune for Symphony Orchestra”, a title that would have been nicely descriptive but numbingly bland.

That “Civil War Tune” to which Gould thankfully did not refer, is of course “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”. First published in 1863, it had the unusual distinction of being embraced by both the North and the South. When Hall & McCreary published The Golden Book of Favorite Songs in 1915, it was one of 173 songs included to represent “the favorite songs of our people”. Generations of school children grew up singing them, including Morton Gould.

When America entered World War II Gould tried to enlist but could not pass the physical. He channeled his patriotic support into what he knew best: music. In 1942, in the span of 24 hours, he wrote American Salute, which became an instant hit. “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”, almost 80 years old, perfectly captured the spirit of a nation that, even having suffered through a decade of the Great Depression was determined to sacrifice even more to win the war against Fascism.

Aaron Copland, thirteen years Gould’s senior, also served his country musically. During the war, Copland turned to American themes for his inspiration, creating classics such as Rodeo, The Red Pony, Appalachian Spring, and Fanfare for the Common Man.  In summer of 1944 he began work on his Third Symphony; when he finished two years later, the war was over. Victorious American G.I.s returned home to marry, start families, go to college, work in bustling factories or the building trades — in short, to live the American Dream, which never seemed more attainable than in 1946. Copland’s music perfectly captures the fresh-faced optimism and confidence that was a hallmark of the postwar years. Leonard Bernstein called the Third Symphony “An American Monument,” and like other monuments, it captures the spirit from the time of its creation. In just a few years, the Cold War would threaten nuclear annihilation, the Korean War would end in a frustrating stalemate, and America — so recently unified by joyful victory — would be torn by the paranoia and suspicion of McCarthyism. But Copland’s great symphony is a glorious reminder of a time in America when nothing felt impossible.

Co-written musical works are extraordinarily rare — the Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto we featured last season is one of only two I know. The other is We Are Met At Gettysburg by Steve Heitzeg and Amy Scurria, which we feature on March 28.  The Battle of Gettysburg took place in the first three days of July 1863, and was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, claiming 50,000 casualties. Heitzeg and Scurria hope that their music can enable us, 153 years later, to make a personal emotional connection with the soldiers who so gave their lives in a battle many regard as the turning point of the war.


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