The Tender Land: Based on the Opera by Aaron Copland

The tender Land, click here to explore the 3d world
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A good place to start is to find the poster of ‘The Tender Land’ outside the house. Selecting this will let you read our in-depth Concert Notes. If you have trouble locating the poster, you can always read the Concert Notes here



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Some Thoughts On Copland’s Television Opera

Like all students of the pre-eminent French composition teacher, Nadia Boulanger, there is nothing in Copland’s score that is not securely and persuasively written.  In fact, The Tender Land is beautifully rendered on a small scale as it was originally intended to be heard as a television opera.

The criticism levelled at the work seems to center around the lack of vocal pyrotechnics and the quality of the libretto by Copland’s friend, Erik Johns.  Johns’ libretto is, in my view, wholly maligned if you take into account the common and oft-realised mistake of judging language outside the era and location in which it is intended to be realised.  As Copland himself wrote, “The Tender Land was not meant to be a big dramatic opera. It was for young people to perform, and for that reason, it is rather simple in musical style and story line… I was trying to give young American singers material that they do not often get in the opera house; that is, material that would be natural for them to sing and perform… The result was closer to musical comedy than grand opera.”

Originally written in two Acts the opera was subsequently, after it’s initial lukewarm response, re-cast into three Acts. I’m not sure this is a successful solution. The two-Act version better focuses the main subtext of the piece itself: the traumatic episode – and real-life theatre – of ‘McCarthy-ism’ in the US during the early 1950s and prior.

Required to appear before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Copland was interrogated – and traumatised – on his alleged communist leanings and support for what was known as the ‘Red Terror’. Whether Copland was or was not a Communist is still hard to determine. He never joined any political party. His vocal support of the very poor agricultural workers in Minnesota in the 1930s (many of whom were communists) probably did little to assuage later insinuations about his political beliefs. It’s greater impact was that Copland – like many others – would never again be tempted take a public stance on other issues as a consequence of the Senator from Wisconsin’s political witch hunts (with the exception, as to be expected, in the rise of Nazism).

The U.S.’s First Amendment would seem not to protect people as often portrayed in the movies (many actors’ careers from the period in fact were ruined by McCarthy’s improper condemnations).

The Suite From The Opera

The suite Copland extracted from The Tender Land is in three movements, with the second and third linked without pause. As it happens, the opera’s three Acts are sampled in reverse order. Movement one comprises the Introduction to act three and the music of the love duet for Martin and Laurie. Movement two is taken from the act two party-scene – the opera’s one really big number. Movement three adapts the quintet, “The Promise of Living“, that ends act one. This hymn-like finale, arguably the opera’s most memorable music (and often sung by choirs) is an elongated moment musically italicized by the composer.

The text, in effect, promises a world without McCarthy (and people like him) when Grandpa, Ma, Laurie, Martin, and Top sing:
The promise of ending
In right understanding
Is peace in our own hearts
And peace with our neighbor.

Copland’s personal trauma through McCarthy-ism is clearly evident in the opera itself. Not only is Grandpa Moss oddly paranoid about outsiders (“You can’t trust strangers. Bums! Dogs!”) even after his suspicions that Martin and Top have molested a neighbor prove unfounded, he sings (amazingly): “You’re guilty all the same.” Ma Moss, too, has “a funny feeling” about Martin and Top, but adds; “Have I the right to make an accusation just on feeling? I hope I’m wrong.”