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By Jason Sundram

"Laurie’s Song" from The Tender Land (1954)



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Aaron Copland (November 14, 1900–December 2, 1990)

Copland was desperate to write an opera, a genre he called la forme fatale. He even considered collaborating on an opera about a dentist, but “for some reason, I gave that one up.” In spite of this longstanding desire, he was unable to find a good librettist, one who understood music as well as words, and produced only two operas: The Second Hurricane (1936), and The Tender Land (1954), neither of which was a success.

The Tender Land (composed 1952—1954) was commissioned by the League of Composers for the organization’s 30th anniversary. The librettist, “Horace Everett” (Erik Johns), was a young dancer, painter and poet who had never written a libretto or a play before. Based on a text by James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), it was originally intended as an opera for television, but was rejected by NBC. Instead, it was premiered on April 1, 1954 by the New York City Opera, conducted by Thomas Schippers under the direction of Jerome Robbins. It was subsequently revised (expanded from two acts to three) in 1955. The Tender Land is both traditional and progressive. While rooted in diatonacism and traditional operatic forms such as the aria, it is sung in the American vernacular and incorporates folksong.

Despite some amazing music, it never caught on. In 1956, Copland arranged it into an orchestral suite performed April 10, 1958 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner. In addition, The Tender Land yielded a piano duet with choral settings on sections from the opera: “Promise of Living” and “Stomp Your Foot", along with the solo aria “Laurie’s Song".

Set in the 1930’s Midwest at harvest time, the opera was powerfully influenced by Walker Evans’ photographs, which accompanied Agee’s book. A mother-daughter photograph was to form the basis for the characters of Ma Moss and Laurie. In fact, The Tender Land is essentially an opera about Laurie’s rebellion and awakening sexuality as a young woman.

In Laurie’s Song, Laurie—on the eve of her high school graduation—wonders that her childhood has passed so fast; she feels like she has outgrown her hometown. She expresses anger because her mother and grandfather try to control her life. It is a marvelous aria. Later, she kisses a “drifter” at her party, and agrees to leave with him, but is jilted. Finding him gone, she decides to leave anyway, rather than staying for her graduation. As she later says, “I’m ready for leaving like this harvest is ready to be gathered in."

Copland said “The result was closer to musical comedy than grand opera.”