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Composed: 1952-1954
Length: c. 5 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (2nd = bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (glockenspiel, xylophone, cymbals), harp, piano, celesta, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 13, 1970, conducted by the composer

“The conviction grew inside me that the two things that seemed always to have been separate in America – music and the life about me – must be made to touch,” recalled Copland, and over his career this exploration of American musical identity took him beyond his native Brooklyn: first across the Brooklyn Bridge to downtown New York City, then abroad to Paris and Mexico – and eventually to the entire world. Along the way he incorporated jazz, folk, and Latin American elements into a style that came to epitomize some kind of “essential” American-ness, not only for his contemporaries but for 21st-century listeners as well. How appropriate, then, that it was the classic American songwriting team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II who commissioned Copland to write a piece in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the League of Composers, an organization founded in 1923 to champion the work of American composers. As Copland wrote to William Flanagan in 1952:

“I am working on an untitled, as yet, two-act opera, lasting about one hour and a half. It has a libretto by a young writer named Horace Everett [actually a pseudonym for Copland’s then-companion Erik Johns]. The action calls for a cast of five principal singers and takes place in a lower middle-class farm in the Middle West. Time is the present. The subject concerns the coming to maturity of a young girl.” Time period and setting are reminiscent of the ballet Copland had scored for Martha Graham a few years earlier; a direct source of inspiration for Johns was the photographs of Walker Evans taken during the depression. In this case, the story involves a young girl graduating from high school who falls in love with a hobo. He eventually sacrifices her because he understands that she is not cut out for his life, but she leaves home anyway. The themes of gain and loss, leaving and staying must have resonated strongly with Americans emerging from depression and world war.

“The Promise of Living” is a quintet that unites hobos and family at the end of the first act in celebration of the harvest and its traditions. Even without voices, the use of the folk hymn “Zion’s Walls” and Copland’s transparent scoring create a clear dramatic sequence. A dramatic gesture gives way to a quiet, lyrical string passage, in which the gentle rise and fall of the melody suggests the unfolding sequence of wistful thoughts. Woodwinds gradually interject to create a sense of dialogue, both internal and, eventually, external. The strings answer, this time fuller, building to a passage that is signature Copland: a smooth melody rooted in open harmonies, with bits of short repeated motives in call and response style keep the music moving. Brass eventually join the scene, their chorale style underscoring the ritualistic role of the moment without losing the introspective quality that draws together community and individual, past and present.

Annotator Susan Key is an editor and musicologist who contributes frequently to Los Angeles Philharmonic program books.