A. C. Douglas writes that he had a hopeful dream in which Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man (brass and percussion, 1942) preceded the palying of "Hail to the Chief" at President Obama's inauguration. (I like "Ruffles and Flourishes" so I was happy; the less said about John Williams' contribution to the proceedings, the better.)

ACD mentions in passing that the Fanfare is the "best thing [Copland] ever wrote". This comment made me think about the idea of a composer (or any other artist) having a "best" best work. How do you determine what is best? What are the criteria?

Is a composer's most perfectly-realized work the same as his or her best? I consider Igor Stravinsky's In Memoriam Dylan Thomas (tenor, string quartet, four trombones, 1954, lasting about 7 minutes) as close to a perfect work of art as I've ever encountered, but it's not my favorite Stravinsky, nor would I consider it his "best" piece (I don't think I would, anyway). Maybe scale or ambition plays into it--a piece has to have a certain "heft" to it to be a composer's "best". I don't know.


  1. Copland and Stravinsky are two composers for whom I have no especial ease in 'determining' a 'best' piece. The Sextet and the Piano Fantasy are strong contenders; and in fact, the more I hear the Third Symphony (which incorporates the Fanfare), even the better do I think of it.


  2. Copland actually wrote two other Fanfares: a ceremonial one and an inaugural one. The Fanfare for the Common Man is far superior to the other two. I happen to think that he was at his very best as a film composer (The Heiress, Our Town, The Red Pony, Of Mice and Men), and at his second best as a ballet composer.

  3. Anonymous2:57 AM

    I would find it a little hard to determine one best piece per composer. Wouldn't it depend on the interpretation of the performers? and the time and setting?

  4. Of course, it was in fact a great weekend for Copland -- the Sunday Licoln Memorial concert featured two pieces of his, the Fanfare and the Lincoln Portrait. (I think he was the only composer of any stripe so represented). And the Williams thing on Tuesday was of course largely an extended homage a Copland.

    I thought Williams' thing was fine. It served it's purpose perfectly effectively. One has to meet these things on their own terms, and you can't go into that situation expecting to hear the Quatour pour la fin du temps (from which he stole the instrumental combination). Mostly I'm just grateful that Obama's people even thought to commission a piece of concerted music.

    The Fanfare is a wonderfully crafted, effective little piece, but the idea that it's Copland's "best thing" is to me laughable, even if one concedes that phrase has any meaning. Considering the range and ambition of Copland's output as a whole, his "best thing" would have to be something of a little more substance, imho.