Aaron Copland: Fanfare for the Common Man


Composed in 1942 for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and conductor Eugene Goossens, Fanfare for the Common Man is one of Aaron Copland’s most famous works. It was inspired, in part, by a speech made earlier that same year by the U.S. Vice President Henry A. Wallace. In that speech, Wallace proclaimed the dawning of the “Century of the Common Man”. This struck a chord inside Copland, and thus Fanfare for the Common Man was born.


Copland wrote extensively about the commission of this work in his autobiography:


“Eugene Goossens, conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, had written to me at the end of August about an idea he wanted to put into action for the 1942-43 concert season. During World War I he had asked British composers for a fanfare to begin each orchestral concert. It had been so successful that he thought to repeat the procedure in World War II with American composers.


It is my idea to make these fanfares stirring and significant contributions to the war effort.”


Goossens received 18 fanfares in total from American composers, but only Copland’s has stood the test of time. Goossens had suggested titles to Copland such as Fanfare for Soldiers, Fanfare for Sailors and Fanfare for Airmen. Copland considered several other titles including Fanfare for the Solemn Ceremony and Fanfare for the Four Freedoms. To the surprise of everyone, Copland ended up with the title Fanfare for the Common Man:


[Goossens] “Its title is as original as its music, and I think it is so telling that it deserves a special occasion for its performance. If it is agreeable to you, we will premiere it 12th March 1943 at income tax time.”


[Copland’s reply to Goossens] “I am all for honouring the common man at income tax time!”


The Music

Fanfare for the Common Man is scored for four french horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, tam-tam and bass drum. Fanfares are usually written for loud instruments, as the function of a fanfare is to proclaim and introduce something. 

Starting with the bass drum and tam-tam, the trumpets, in unison, play the iconic ascending melody. This opening is a test of stamina, control and having a good ear. The theme soars up into the trumpet’s top register before coming back down again. The second ascension now features the horns too. The added support here adds to the layering effect that Copland was aiming for. 

The bass drum and tam-tam place strategic hits whilst the brass are holding long notes or have come away, leaving room for these atmospheric accentuations. The third fanfare development sees the trombones and timpani in dialogue before the trumpets return for their opening fanfare. The brass unite for a unison sequence which really packs a punch. 

Another roll from the tam-tam sees the fanfare start again with the trumpets leading and the other brass accentuating where necessary. The fanfare comes to an epic end after a rapturous roll from the timpani and tam-tam as the upper brass hold their last note.


Final Thoughts

The popularity of this fanfare has seen it been used in a number of different ways, from the traditional brass ensemble to alternative rock versions. Fanfare for the Common Man is an epic work that champions everybody who listens to it – a true gem in Copland’s archive.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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