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First page from the piano sketch of Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man. Library of Congress, Music Division.

Midday Thoughts: What Makes Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man Uncommon?

Copland's music paints an aural picture of many different facets of America. Some works seem to evoke the Modern American City, others Latin America, the American West or the American Past. A fifth image of America found Copland's music is the Common Man.* Like his other music for a broad American public, Common Man music (such as Statements or Third Symphony) has an immediate appeal; it makes a direct, dramatic impact. Its gestures are accessible, broad, and bold. Eighty years ago, Fanfare for the Common Man was first heard by audiences; this article spotlights the unique and lasting musical identity of this famous work.

First page from the piano sketch of Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man. Library of Congress, Music Division.
First page from the piano sketch of Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man. Library of Congress, Music Division.

Fanfare for the Common Man was commissioned and premiered by Eugene Goossens, then conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony. It was one of a series of fanfares Goossens requested from eighteen American composers. It was 1942, and with the war in mind, Copland considered many titles, including "Fanfare for the Day of Victory," "Fanfare for Our Heroes," "Fanfare for the Spirit of Democracy," "Fanfare for the Paratroops, " as well as more generally patriotic titles like "Fanfare for a Solemn Ceremony," and the overly alliterative "Fanfare for Four Freedoms." He finally settled on Fanfare for the Common Man. The work is scored for brass and percussion only: four horns, three trumpets, two trombones, and a tuba; with timpani, bass drum, and tam-tam.

Copland's pencil sketch for this work is surprising in its brevity. It seems incongruous that a piece so majestic and substantial fits on one folio—essentially a very wide, double-sided sheet of staff paper folded in half. This music that has resounded in concert halls and stadiums, lingering in the air and in the memory, looks almost inconsequential on paper.

Of course, appearances can be deceiving. A closer look reveals the subtlety and motivic economy in the structure of this bold, powerful work.

The Dramatic Flow of Fanfare

Fanfare for the Common Man begins with a startling tam-tam crash, extended in time by two pounding strokes of the timpani and bass drum. As the sound starts to fade toward silence, we hear that gesture again, a second and a third time: CRASH... pound-pound. Crash... pound-pound. The time intervals between the crashes are just slightly unpredictable, making us lean forward, as if waiting to hear the next word.

Fanfare for the Common Man bars 1-4
Three gestures

Fanfare for the Common Man is built almost exclusively from three brief gestures, all of which appear in the opening eight measures of the piece. The first, which I'll call the pounding gesture (G1) is largely defined by timbre and rhythm: a deep, resonant, metallic crash with slow-moving percussion blows. This initial gesture is unpitched, meaning the sound waves coming from the instruments are irregular and complex enough that the ear doesn't discern discrete, nameable pitches. The listener recognizes this gesture by its timbre, or tone quality, and its rhythmic qualities—that is, the duration of the sounds, their spacing in time, and the time it takes them to decay.

Fanfare for the Common Man bars 6-8

As the pounding fades, into the silence comes a regal, ascending trumpet call. Two rising sixteenth notes, starting on the downbeat, leap up to a long, clear tone: ba-da-daa! This flourish (G2) is Fanfare's first melodic gesture with clear, singable pitches: scale degrees 5 (low) - 1 - 5 (high), presented in a short-short-long rhythm. Immediately, it is restated in varied form (short-short-long, 1-5-4). The second iteration of the flourish uses the same instruments, the same "nobile" mood and "marcato" articulation, the same placement on the downbeat, but slightly different pitches. The "ba-da-daa" flourish is a staple of this short piece. And whenever it occurs, it infuses a splash of energy.

Without a pause or a break, a third gesture enters to conclude the phrase. Four emphatic, rhythmically even notes descend from a new melodic high point back to the initial, low starting pitch. The effect is a majestic stride (G3).

What happens next foreshadows the way things will go for the rest of the piece.

Fanfare for the Common Man bars 9-12

After the two opening trumpet calls and the steady even-note descent, we hear the ba-da-daa again—four times in a row. The last of the four flourishes descends, taking on a bit of the third gesture's majestic, emphatic character. As it reaches a new low resting point, a hint of the introductory pounding returns.

The music continues, alternating between "ba-da-daa" flourishes and the slower, rhythmically even notes of the contrasting gesture. Blocks of ba-da-daas alternate with blocks of even notes throughout the piece—the flourish and the majestic stride—sometimes separated by hints of the pounding introduction. The flourish almost always rises; the striding notes almost always descend.

Listening now to the whole piece, notice two things.

  1. First, the way the passages of even notes expand. Each time you hear a passage of even notes, it seems longer, louder, and more important. After a while, instead of leaping down, the even notes start stepping down, gradually and deliberately, as if becoming increasingly dignified.
  2. Second, notice the temporal spacing between the flourishes. It varies—there’s a longer pause between the first two opening flourishes than there is between the four that follow in rapid succession. If you're mathematically inclined, you can even try to count the beats in between the flourishes: first there's three, then seven, then two, two and two.

Fanfare for the Common Man full recording

Each flourish adds a burst of energy. At climactic points, these bursts occur almost on top of each other, like a brilliant fireworks display. At the end, it seems that the sheer weight of the majestic even notes asserts power over the flourishes, slowing them down. Instead of ba-da-daa, we get Bump-dump-DUM! The last chord sounds slightly inconclusive—not fully at rest. This is because while most of the piece is centered around B flat, it ends on a huge D major triad—not at all native to the key of B flat.

Fanfare's Unique Musical Identity

Fanfare for the Common Man is a favorite at patriotic celebrations, including the Fourth of July (U.S. Independence Day). High-profile uses include the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, network news broadcasts, major motion pictures, advertisements, military funerals, and state occasions. It is so prevalent in popular culture that it is sometimes mistaken for music in the public domain, as if in company with "The Star-Spangled Banner," the "Happy Birthday" song or "Amazing Grace." This is not the case. Although many Copland compositions do incorporate pre-existing melodies, this one does not.

While this work cannot and should not be reduced to its structure, certain technical musical concepts can help explain why and how Fanfare for the Common Man is unique.

Songs, motives, development

Popular parlance notwithstanding, Fanfare for the Common Man is not a "song." It is an instrumental work; a composition. Songs, as a rule, are performed by a vocalist singing lyrics, and usually melody is paramount. Some instrumental works are very melodic. However, Fanfare's sonic identity does not spring from melody, but from "motives"—what I've called gestures—brief musical ideas that are smaller than a phrase but more complex than a single note or chord.

Each of the three gestures described above is "developed," or altered slightly, throughout the piece, without losing its basic character. The specific intervals and pitches may change, the durations may be halved or doubled, but the rhythmic character and the melodic contours—ascending flourish (G2), deliberate descent (G3), or percussion blows (G1)—remain distinct.

In this short work, Copland demonstrates his mastery of what music analysts call "motivic economy." He restates, develops, extends and combines three brief musical ideas to create a longer work of power and coherence.

There is some subjectivity involved in claiming that any given measure contains an old gesture altered, vs. a completely new one. But in my judgment, 45 of the piece's 46 measures contain at least one of the signature gestures described above. Many measures contain multiple gestures, or multiple versions of the same gesture.

TABLE A: occurrences of G1, G2, and G3 in FCM1

Found in FCM measures 1-4, 12, 18, 22-23, 32, 34, 38, 40, 43, 45-46Found in FCM measures 6-7, 9-10, 13-14, 19-20, 24-26, 28, 30, 35-36, 41-42, 44Found in FCM measures 7-8, 11,14-18, 21, 26-34, 36-40

1Measure numbers taken from Boosey & Hawkes Orchestral Anthology, vol. 1, p.131-134.
*NOTE: The only measure not listed in TABLE A is a measure of rest during which G1 reverberates.

The way Copland combines these three gestures is what gives Fanfare for the Common Man a truly unique identity. The opening of Fanfare presents the kernel of entire piece. For the remaining 3 minutes, he repeats, varies, modifies, recombines, and interweaves the three short gestures to create a coherent 3 1/2-minute piece of music that flows forward in time, both logically and dramatically, from a striking beginning to a triumphal end.

Copland's "Common Man" music does not need to be studied to be enjoyed. Using a compositional process that combined intuition with technical skill, the composer built an intricate, dramatic, and inspiring piece that has resonated with listeners in countless settings for 80 years.

*Based on "Aaron Copland's Images of America," a talk I gave on July 29, 2000 at the Berkshire Choral Festival.


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