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"Break Forth in Melody & Song":
Aaron Copland

(1874 - 1951)


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Brooklyn-born Aaron Copland (1900-1990), did more than any other composer to introduce the American musical idiom into classical music, jazz in Piano Concerto (1927), Western tunes in Billy the Kid (1938) and Rodeo (1942), folk airs in Appalachian Spring (1944), and Latin rhythms in El Salon Mexico (1937) and Danzon Cubano (1942), He did the same with a popular East European Jewish theme in his Vitebsk (1929).

The composer describes this composition as: "Vitebsk, study on a Jewish melody for violin, cello and piano . . ." The playwright Ansky used this melody in The Dybbuk, transcribing it as it was sung in his native village Vitebsk.

Aaron Copland, Vitebsk, 1929. Music Division.

On the first page of Copland's work sheets, he talks about using the tune "mipne ma" as it was sung in Vitebska, where the famous playwright Ansky was born, and which Ansky included as a melody in his play The Dybbuk. The play's Hebrew version (translated by the famous Hebrew poet, Hayyim Nahman Bialik) was performed in 1927 by the brilliant Habimah Theater of Moscow to audiences in New York, where Copland must have seen it. Its insistent melodic theme, "mipne ma?" -- for what reason?inquires,

Why? O why? / Has the soul descended from on high?

And states:

Descent from on high, / demands that man must ever try / to rise upward!

In the course of the drama, the melody evinces many moods, yearning, compassion, command, the sigh of despair vying with the cry of exultation, but through it all that echoing question, "Why?"


Sources: Abraham J. Karp, From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress, (DC: Library of Congress, 1991).

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