Aaron Copland: John Henry


Originally composed in 1940 for radio broadcast, Aaron Copland’s John Henry is a short orchestral piece based on the popular folk ballad. Aimed at high school-ability players, as well as listeners, Copland wanted to make sure that this piece fitted with their expectations:


“Knowing my audience was to be a young one, and that young people like their music exciting and not too long, I kept John Henry down to less than four minutes and called it a ‘descriptive fantasy.’”


The story of John Henry has been widely used in the arts throughout the years, with this African-American folk hero story standing the test of time. Described as a “steel-driving man”, Copland’s music reflects Henry’s trade with the hammering steel sounds and hard graft heard throughout the music.


The Music

Copland’s short piece is programmatic and focuses on John Henry’s heroic battle against a railroad pile-driver. Starting quietly, with only a far-distanced trumpet and clarinet communicating, an intriguing atmosphere is set. Shrill unison strings and percussion interject, which gives the listener the first flavour of the kind of work that John Henry did. Melodic brass move between these shimmering string interjections, before they switch places. 

The brass and percussion team up with new, louder interjections. The chugging from the percussion and the subtle speeding up of the rest of the orchestra leads to the first proper climax of the piece. As the texture builds the strings reprise their interjection once more. As the texture becomes heavier, the trumpets and tuned percussion shine the most. A reprise of the opening chords finish this piece off in an intense style.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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You might also enjoy… Aaron Copland: Hoe-Down


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