Fanfare for Ukraine

  • Themes: Culture

Aaron Copland’s 'Fanfare for the Common Man', composed in 1942, was dedicated to ordinary Americans' contribution to the fight against fascism. On the eightieth anniversary of its premiere, we should honour the sacrifices made by civilians in another conflict zone: Ukraine.

Aaron Copland
Aaron Copland. Credit: Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo

In 1942, in the middle of the Second World War, Eugene Gooseens, the music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra wanted to honour American troops. He asked the composer Aaron Copland to write a fanfare with which the orchestra could open its new season.

Copland returned, too late for the season opening, with a fanfare that honoured not soldiers but ordinary civilians.

On 12 March, it will be eighty years since ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ received its premiere. Today, a fanfare honouring the contributions of ordinary citizens in a war against a brutal aggressor is called for once more. After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, the US declared war on Japan and immediately saw Germany and Italy respond by declaring war on it. Millions of men were drafted and soon dispatched for service in the war, which until then had not directly touched most Americans’ lives.

This great leap in the fight against Hitler and his allies, Gooseens felt, required a set of fanfares. He wrote to leading composers, inviting them to write ‘stirring and significant contributions to the war effort’, which he and the orchestra would premiere throughout the 1942-43 season. Several responded, sending Gooseens’ works with titles including ‘A Fanfare for the Fighting French’, ‘A Fanfare for Paratroopers’, ‘A Fanfare for American Heroes’ and ‘Fanfare for Freedom’.

Among the recipients of Gooseen’s letter was Aaron Copland, a composer better known than the others; Gooseens had reserved the season’s opening night for the fanfare he wanted Copland to write. But when Copland sent the conductor his fanfare, it was several months late – and it had a strange title. ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ celebrated not the soldiers fighting in the war but the people at home.

Goossens, though, liked the piece and decided to premiere it on 12 March, just before Americans had to submit their tax returns. Taxes had risen due to the war effort; for many ordinary Americans, they were painfully high.

On 12 March 1942, the Fanfare for the Common Man was debuted, and became an instant classic. Since then, even the most occasional concertgoer, not to mention videogamers, television watchers, cinemagoers and sports fans have heard the fanfare or some adaptation of it. (You can hear it conducted by Leonard Bernstein here in a performance attended by the composer.) The two-and-a-half minute composition remains a standard of the orchestral repertoire.

But, eighty years after its premiere, the fanfare is more than just a striking composition. Russia’s war against Ukraine has led Ukrainians of all kinds to respond with resilience, imagination and stoicism. While hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian men and women serve in the armed forces with enormous bravery, millions of others serve with similar courage at home. Most don’t have an official role in the war effort, but they keep life going amid constant air-raid alarms, and despite shelling and bombardment. They try to make their children’s existence bearable even in air-raid shelters. They keep schools going. They go grocery-shopping for elderly neighbours. They train as volunteer medics. They keep one another’s spirits high. Railway workers keep the railways going, a feat of skill and dedication. Utility engineers get power back up as soon as humanly possible. The efforts of Ukraine’s armed forces – and the large donations of weapons from Ukraine’s allies – would, in fact, amount to little if the military were not backed up by civilians. Should war once again befall other countries, they, too, would depend on ordinary citizens rising to the task while men and women in uniform took on the enemy at the frontlines.

Common citizens once again deserve recognition for their contributions to keeping a country, and the world, safe from aggressors. And because ordinary citizens’ contributions often take place away from the spotlight and are less dramatic than the tasks soldiers have to perform, perhaps they deserve public recognition even more. How many Ukrainian teachers and utility workers has the world praised in recent months? Indeed, how many healthcare and retail workers in Britain (or Germany, or Italy, or the US, or Sweden) have been praised in recent months? Yet without them, our societies would quickly grind to a halt.

Filing taxes is an arduous task, but those of us whose only obligation to keeping our societies safe – at least for the moment – is having to pay taxes should consider themselves lucky. The eightieth anniversary of Copland’s fanfare offers an opportunity to acknowledge the unsung heroes of our times.


Elisabeth Braw