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Fanfare for the New Normal

A view of the Hatch Memorial Shell with the Boston Pops at the Esplanade on July 4, 2010
Boston Pops
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A view of the Hatch Memorial Shell with the Boston Pops at the Esplanade on July 4, 2010

The Pandemic of 2020 has given a new meaning to words like “essential,” “heroes,” and “the new normal.” Though this Independence Day will be different from years past, the need to honor these heroes with musical fanfare remains.

More than a dozen times in the past I co-hosted WCRB’s live broadcast of the Boston Pops’ Fourth of July concert at the Hatch Shell. I always loved doing that - it’s a blast to broadcast from outdoors, to be able to meet some of our listeners, to be - at the same time - in the broadcast tent and in the middle of the most happening place in the country with “America’s Orchestra.” And in years when I wasn’t at the Esplanade on the 4th, I emceed or was guest narrator for several other area orchestras.

I’ve been thinking about what I’ll be missing most since there will be no such concerts this year, for safety’s sake. Short answer: I’ll miss it all (yes, even the Howitzers). But as I thought more about it, I realized I will miss hearing – l live – two pieces in particular that are often programmed back-to-back: Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” and Joan Tower’s “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman.”

In 1942, The United States was entering World War II. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s conductor, Eugene Goossens, commissioned Aaron Copland and 17 other composers to write inspiring fanfares. A few months later, Copland heard Vice President Henry Wallace give a rousing speech against imperialism, in which he declared:

“Some have spoken of the American Century. I say that the century on which we are entering, the century that will come out of this war, can be and must be the century of the common man.” Copland later said that the phrase resonated with him: “it was the common man who was doing all the dirty work in the war... He deserved a fanfare.”

Conductor Goossens suggested a bunch of titles, such as “Fanfare for Soldiers,” or other military services. But after considering a few other options, Copland surprised him with the title “Fanfare for the Common Man.” Goossens, in turn, surprised him with his response: “If it is agreeable to you, we will premiere it 12 March 1943 at income tax time.” Copland replied, “I (am) all for honoring the common man at income tax time.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VQ1J_3sJWCs

In 1986, the Houston Symphony commissioned a fanfare from Joan Tower for its “Fanfare Project,” a celebration of the City of Houston’s sesquicentennial. Tower used Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” as inspiration, and dedicated it to “women who take risks and are adventurous.”  She also dedicated it specifically to conductor Marin Alsop, who was at the beginning of her career but was already making waves. (Among other things, Alsop later became the first woman to be music director of a major American orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9NXAvqzD2Cw

In years past, on July 4th, I would sit there, in the sometimes stifling heat of a summer evening, and feel chills run up my spine when these two pieces were played: Copland’s version acknowledging that every man, not just royalty, is worthy of regal-sounding recognition; Tower’s version giving a nod to women, that they are seen, and that they matter. And I was always grateful that I worked in radio so that I could let the music work its magic and bring a tear to my eyes, and I would be able to wipe it away without being noticed.

Here we are, in the first Independence Day in my lifetime without any live concerts, and I wish every hospital worker, every first responder, every teacher, every home-schooling parent, every caregiver, every grocery store worker, every custodian, every bus driver, every responsible citizen, could have Copland’s and Tower’s music blasted through their sound systems, and know that this year they are listening to “Fanfares for the ‘New Normal’ Essential Heroes.”

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One more thing: In 1977, British band Emerson, Lake and Palmer made a video in an empty Montreal Olympic Stadium of them playing Copland’s “Fanfare.” If they were streaming a concert right now I could imagine the scene looking just like it did back then:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2zurZig4L8