Aaron Copland


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Aaron Copland was an American composer, composition teacher, writer, and later a conductor of his own and other American music. Copland was referred to by his peers and critics as "the Dean of American Composers." The open, slowly changing harmonies in much of his music are typical of what many people consider to be the sound of American music, evoking the vast American landscape and pioneer spirit. He is best known for the works he wrote in the 1930s and 1940s in a deliberately accessible style often referred to as "populist" and which the composer labeled his "vernacular" style. Works in this vein include the ballets Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid and Rodeo, his Fanfare for the Common Man and Third Symphony. In addition to his ballets and orchestral works, he produced music in many other genres including chamber music, vocal works, opera and film scores.

Early Years

Aaron Copland was born in Brooklyn, New York, on November 14, 1900. He was the youngest of five children in a conservative Jewish family of Lithuanian origins. While emigrating from Russia to the United States, Copland's father, Harris Morris Copland, lived and worked in Scotland for two to three years to pay for his boat fare to the U.S. It was there that Copland's father may have anglicized his surname "Kaplan" to "Copland," though Copland himself believed for many years that the change had been due to an Ellis Island immigration official when his father entered the country. Copland was however unaware until late in his life that the family name had been Kaplan, and his parents never told him this. Throughout his childhood, Copland and his family lived above his parents' Brooklyn shop, H.M. Copland's, at 628 Washington Avenue (which Aaron would later describe as "a kind of neighborhood Macy's"), on the corner of Dean Street and Washington Avenue, and most of the children helped out in the store. His father was a staunch Democrat. The family members were active in Congregation Baith Israel Anshei Emes, where Aaron celebrated his Bar Mitzvah. Not especially athletic, the sensitive young man became an avid reader and often read Horatio Alger stories on his front steps.

Copland's father had no musical interest. His mother, Sarah Mittenthal Copland, sang, played the piano, and arranged for music lessons for her children. Of his siblings, oldest brother Ralph was the most advanced musically, proficient on the violin. His sister Laurine had the strongest connection with Aaron; she gave him his first piano lessons, promoted his musical education, and supported him in his musical career. A student at the Metropolitan Opera School and a frequent opera-goer, Laurine also brought home libretti for Aaron to study. Copland attended Boys High School and in the summer went to various camps. Most of his early exposure to music was at Jewish weddings and ceremonies, and occasional family musicales.

Copland began writing songs at the age of eight and a half. His earliest notated music, about seven bars he wrote when age 11, was for an opera scenario he created and called Zenatello. From 1913 to 1917 he took piano lessons with Leopold Wolfsohn, who taught him the standard classical fare. Copland's first public music performance was at a Wanamaker's recital. By the age of 15, after attending a concert by composer-pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Copland decided to become a composer. After attempts to further his music study from a correspondence course, Copland took formal lessons in harmony, theory, and composition from Rubin Goldmark, a noted teacher and composer of American music (who had given George Gershwin three lessons). Goldmark, with whom Copland studied between 1917 and 1921, gave the young Copland a solid foundation, especially in the Germanic tradition. As Copland stated later: "This was a stroke of luck for me. I was spared the floundering that so many musicians have suffered through incompetent teaching." But Copland also commented that the maestro had "little sympathy for the advanced musical idioms of the day" and his "approved" composers ended with Richard Strauss.

Copland's graduation piece from his studies with Goldmark was a three-movement piano sonata in a Romantic style. But he had also composed more original and daring pieces which he did not share with his teacher. In addition to regularly attending the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Symphony, where he heard the standard classical repertory, Copland continued his musical development through an expanding circle of musical friends. After graduating from high school, Copland played in dance bands. Continuing his musical education, he received further piano lessons from Victor Wittgenstein, who found his student to be "quiet, shy, well-mannered, and gracious in accepting criticism." Copland's fascination with the Russian Revolution and its promise for freeing the lower classes drew a rebuke from his father and uncles. In spite of that, in his early adult life Copland would develop friendships with people with socialist and communist leanings.

Study in Paris

Copland's passion for the latest European music, plus glowing letters from his friend Aaron Schaffer, inspired him to go to Paris for further study. An article in Musical America about a summer school program for American musicians at the Fontainebleau School of Music, offered by the French government, encouraged Copland still further. His father wanted him to go to college, but his mother's vote in the family conference allowed him to give Paris a try. On arriving in France, he studied at Fontainebleau with pianist and pedagogue Isidor Philipp and composer Paul Vidal. When Copland found Vidal too much like Goldmark, he switched at the suggestion of a fellow student to Nadia Boulanger, then aged 34. He had initial reservations: "No one to my knowledge had ever before thought of studying with a woman." She interviewed him, and recalled later: "One could tell his talent immediately."

Boulanger had as many as 40 students at once and employed a formal regimen that Copland had to follow. Copland found her incisive mind much to his liking and found her ability to critique a composition impeccable. Boulanger "could always find the weak spot in a place you suspected was weak.... She could also tell you why it was weak." He wrote in a letter to his brother Ralph, "This intellectual Amazon is not only professor at the Conservatoire, is not only familiar with all music from Bach to Stravinsky, but is prepared for anything worse in the way of dissonance. But make no mistake ... A more charming womanly woman never lived." Copland later wrote that "it was wonderful for me to find a teacher with such openness of mind, while at the same time she held firm ideas of right and wrong in musical matters. The confidence she had in my talents and her belief in me were at the very least flattering and more—they were crucial to my development at this time of my career." Though he planned on only one year abroad, he studied with her for three years, finding her eclectic approach inspired his own broad musical taste.

Along with his studies with Boulanger, Copland took classes in French language and history at the Sorbonne, attended plays, and frequented Shakespeare and Company, the English-language bookstore that was a gathering-place for expatriate American writers. Among this group in the heady cultural atmosphere of Paris in the 1920s were Paul Bowles, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound, as well as artists like Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, and Amedeo Modigliani. Also influential on the new music were the French intellectuals Marcel Proust, Paul Valéry, Jean-Paul Sartre, and André Gide; the latter cited by Copland as being his personal favorite and most read. Travels to Italy, Austria, and Germany rounded out Copland's musical education. During his stay in Paris, Copland began writing musical critiques, the first on Gabriel Fauré, which helped spread his fame and stature in the music community.

1925 to 1935

Instead of wallowing in self-pity and self-destruction like many of the expatriate members of the Lost Generation, Copland returned to America optimistic and enthusiastic about the future, determined to make his way as a full-time composer. He rented a studio apartment on New York City's Upper West Side in the Empire Hotel, close to Carnegie Hall and other musical venues and publishers. He remained in that area for the next thirty years, later moving to Westchester County, New York. Copland lived frugally and survived financially with help from two $2,500 Guggenheim Fellowships in 1925 and 1926. Lecture-recitals, awards, appointments, and small commissions, plus some teaching, writing, and personal loans kept him afloat in the subsequent years through World War II. Also important, especially during the Depression, were wealthy patrons who underwrote performances, helped pay for publication of works and promoted musical events and composers. Among those mentors was Serge Koussevitzky, the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and known as a champion of "new music." Koussevitsky would prove to be influential in Copland's life, perhaps the second most important after Boulanger. Beginning with the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra (1924), Koussevitzky would perform more of Copland's music than that of any the composer's contemporaries, even while other conductors programmed only a few of Copland's works.

Soon after his return, Copland was exposed to the artistic circle of photographer Alfred Stieglitz. While Copland did not care for Stieglitz's domineering attitude, he admired his work and took to heart Stieglitz's conviction that American artists should reflect "the ideas of American Democracy." This ideal influenced not just the composer but also a generation of artists and photographers, including Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Walker Evans. Evans' photographs inspired portions of Copland's opera The Tender Land.

In his quest to take up the slogan of the Stieglitz group, "Affirm America," Copland found only the music of Carl Ruggles and Charles Ives upon which to draw. Without what Copland called a "usable past," he looked toward jazz and popular music, something he had already started to do while in Europe. In the 1920s, George Gershwin, Bessie Smith, and Louis Armstrong were in the forefront American popular music and jazz. By the end of the decade, Copland felt his music was going in a more abstract, less jazz-oriented direction. However, as large swing bands such as those of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller became popular in the 1930s, Copland took a renewed interest in the genre.

Inspired by the example of Les Six in France, Copland sought out contemporaries such as Roger Sessions, Roy Harris, Virgil Thomson, and Walter Piston, and quickly established himself as a spokesman for composers of his generation. He also helped found the Copland-Sessions Concerts to showcase these composers' chamber works to new audiences. Copland's relationship with these men, who became known as "commando unit" was one of both support and rivalry, and he played a key role in keeping them together until after World War II. He was also generous with his time with nearly every American young composer he met during his life, later earning the title, "Dean of American Music."

With the knowledge he had gained from his studies in Paris, Copland came into demand as a lecturer and writer on contemporary European classical music. From 1927-1930 and 1935-1938, he taught classes at The New School of Social Research in New York City. Eventually, his New School lectures would appear in the form of two books—What to Listen for in Music (1937, revised 1957) and Our New Music (1940, revised 1968 and retitled The New Music: 1900–1960). During this period, Copland also wrote regularly for The New York Times, The Musical Quarterly and a number of other journals. These articles would appear in 1969 as the book Copland on Music.

Copland's compositions in the early 1920s reflected the modernist attitude that prevailed among intellectuals, that the arts need be accessible to only a cadre of the enlightened and that the masses would come to appreciate their efforts over time. However, mounting troubles with the Symphonic Ode (1929) and Short Symphony (1933) caused him to rethink this approach. It was financially contradictory, particularly in the Depression. Avant-garde music had lost what cultural historian Morris Dickstein calls "its buoyant experimental edge" and the national mood toward it had changed. As biographer Howard Pollack points out: "Copland observed two trends among composers in the 1930s: first, a continuing attempt to "simplify their musical language" and, second, a desire to "make contact" with as wide an audience as possible. Since 1927, he had been in the process of simplifying, or at least paring down, his musical language, though in such a manner as to sometimes have the effect, paradoxically, of estranging audiences and performers. By 1933 ... he began to find ways to make his starkly personal language accessible to a surprisingly large number of people."

In many ways, this shift mirrored the German idea of Gebrauchsmusik ("music for use"), as composers sought to create music that could serve a utilitarian as well as artistic purpose. This approach encompassed two trends: first, music that students could easily learn, and second, music which would have wider appeal, such as incidental music for plays, movies, radio, etc. Toward this end, Copland provided musical advice and inspiration to The Group Theater, a company which also attracted Stella Adler, Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg. Philosophically an outgrowth of Stieglitz and his ideals, the Group focused on socially-relevant plays by the American authors. Through it and later his work in film, Copland met several major American playwrights, including Thornton Wilder, William Inge, Arthur Miller, and Edward Albee, and considered projects with all of them.

1935 to 1950

Around 1935, Copland began to compose musical pieces for young audiences, in accordance with the first goal of American Gebrauchsmusik. These works included piano pieces (The Young Pioneers) and an opera (The Second Hurricane). During the Depression years, Copland traveled extensively to Europe, Africa, and Mexico. He formed an important friendship with Mexican composer Carlos Chávez and would return often to Mexico for working vacations conducting engagements. During his initial visit to Mexico, Copland began composing the first of his signature works, El Salón México, which he completed in 1936. In it and in The Second Hurricane Copland began "experimenting," as he phrased it, with a simpler, more accessible style. This and other incidental commissions fulfilled the second goal of American Gebrauchsmusik, creating music of wide appeal.

Concurrent with The Second Hurricane, Copland composed (for radio broadcast) Prairie Journal on a commission from the Columbia Broadcast System. This was one of his first pieces to convey the landscape of the American West. This emphasis on the frontier carried over to his ballet Billy the Kid (1939), which along with El Salón México became his first widespread public success. Copland's ballet music established him as an authentic composer of American music much as Stravinsky's ballet scores connected the composer with Russian music and came at an opportune time. He helped fill a vacuum for American choreographers to fill their dance repertory and tapped into an artistic groundswell, from the motion pictures of Busby Berkeley and Fred Astaire to the ballets of George Balanchine and Martha Graham, to both democratize and Americanize dance as an art form. In 1939, Copland completed his first two Hollywood film scores, for Of Mice and Men and Our Town, and composed the radio score John Henry, based on the folk ballad.

While these works and others like them that would follow were accepted by the listening public at large, detractors accused Copland of pandering to the masses. Music critic Paul Rosenfeld, for one, warned in 1939 that Copland was "standing in the fork in the highroad, the two branches of which lead respectively to popular and artistic success." Even some of the composer's friends, such as composer Arthur Berger, were confused about Copland's simpler style. One, composer David Diamond, went so far as to lecture Copland: "By having sold out to the mongrel commercialists half-way already, the danger is going to be wider for you, and I beg you dear Aaron, don't sell out [entirely] yet." Copland's response was that his writing as he did and in as many genres was his response to how the Depression had affected society, as well as to new media and the audiences made available by these new media. As he himself phrased it, "The composer who is frightened of losing his artistic integrity through contact with a mass audience is no longer aware of the meaning of the word art."

The 1940s were arguably Copland's most productive years, and some of his works from this period would cement his worldwide fame. His ballet scores for Rodeo (1942) and Appalachian Spring (1944) were huge successes. His pieces Lincoln Portrait and Fanfare for the Common Man became patriotic standards. Also important was the Third Symphony. Composed in a two-year period from 1944 to 1946, it became Copland's best-known symphony. The Clarinet Concerto (1948), scored for solo clarinet, strings, harp, and piano, was a commission piece for bandleader and clarinetist Benny Goodman and a complement to Copland's earlier jazz-influenced work, the Piano Concerto (1926). His Four Piano Blues is an introspective composition with a jazz influence. Copland finished the 1940s with two film scores, one for William Wyler's The Heiress and one for the film adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel The Red Pony.

In 1949, Copland returned to Europe, where he found French composer Pierre Boulez dominating the group of post-war avant-garde composers there. He also met with proponents of twelve-tone technique, based on the works of Arnold Schoenberg, and found himself interested in adapting serial methods to his own musical voice.

1950s and 1960s

In 1950, Copland received a U.S.-Italy Fulbright Commission scholarship to study in Rome, which he did the following year. Around this time, he also composed his Piano Quartet (adopting Schoenberg's twelve-tone method of composition), and Old American Songs (1950), the first set of which was premiered by Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten, the second by William Warfield. During the 1951–52 academic year, Copland gave a series of lectures under the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship at Harvard University. These lectures were published as the book Music and Imagination.

Because of his leftist views, which had included his support of the Communist Party USA ticket during the 1936 presidential election and his strong support of Progressive Party candidate Henry A. Wallace during the 1948 presidential election, Copland was investigated by the FBI during the Red scare of the 1950s. He was included on an FBI list of 151 artists thought to have Communist associations and found himself blacklisted, with A Lincoln Portrait withdrawn from the 1953 inaugural concert for President Eisenhower. Called later that year to a private hearing at the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., Copland was questioned by Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn about his lecturing abroad and his affiliations with various organizations and events. In the process, McCarthy and Cohn neglected completely Copland's works, which made a virtue of American values. Outraged by the accusations, many members of the musical community held up Copland's music as a banner of his patriotism. The investigations ceased in 1955 and were closed in 1975.

The McCarthy probes did not seriously affect Copland's career and international artistic reputation, taxing of his time, energy, and emotional state as they might have been. Nevertheless, beginning in 1950, Copland—who had been appalled at Stalin's persecution of Shostakovich and other artists—began resigning from participation in leftist groups. Copland, Pollack states, "stayed particularly concerned about the role of the artist in society." He decried the lack of artistic freedom in the Soviet Union, and in his 1954 Norton lecture he asserted that loss of freedom under Soviet Communism deprived artists of "the immemorial right of the artist to be wrong." He began to vote Democratic, first for Stevenson and then for Kennedy.

Potentially more damaging for Copland was a sea-change in artistic tastes, away from the Populist mores that infused his work of the 1930s and 40s. Beginning in the 1940s, intellectuals assailed Popular Front culture, to which Copland's music was linked, and labeled it, in Dickstein's words, as "hopelessly middlebrow, a dumbing down of art into toothless entertainment." They often linked their disdain for Populist art with technology, new media and mass audiences—in other words, the areas of radio, television and motion pictures, for which Copland either had or soon would write music, as well as his popular ballets. While these attacks actually began at the end of the 1930s with the writings of Clement Greenberg and Dwight Macdonald for Partisan Review, they were based in anti-Stalinist politics and would accelerate in the decades following World War II.

Despite any difficulties that his suspected Communist sympathies might have posed, Copland traveled extensively during the 1950s and early 60s to observe the avant-garde styles of Europe, hear compositions by Soviet composers not well known in the West and experience the new school of Polish music. While in Japan, he was taken with the work of Toru Takemitsu and began a correspondence with him that would last over the next decade. Copland revised his text "The New Music" with comments on the styles that he encountered. He found much of what he heard dull and impersonal. Electronic music seemed to have "a depressing sameness of sound," while aleatoric music was for those "who enjoy teetering on the edge of chaos." As he summarized, "I've spent most of my life trying to get the right note in the right place. Just throwing it open to chance seems to go against my natural instincts."

In 1952, Copland received a commission from the League of Composers, funded by a grant from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, to write an opera for television. While Copland was aware of the potential pitfalls of that genre, which included weak libretti and demanding production values, he had also been thinking about writing an opera since the 1940s. Among the subjects he had considered were Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy and Frank Norris's McTeague. He finally settled on James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which seemed appropriate for the more intimate setting of television and could also be used in the "college trade," with more schools mounting operas than they had before World War II. The resulting opera, The Tender Land was written in two acts but later expanded to three. As Copland feared, critics found the libretto to be weak when the opera premiered in 1954. In spite of its flaws, the opera became one of the few American operas to enter the standard repertory.

In 1957, 1958, and 1976, Copland was the Music Director of the Ojai Music Festival, a classical and contemporary music festival in Ojai, California. For the occasion of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Centennial, Copland composed Ceremonial Fanfare For Brass Ensemble to accompany the exhibition "Masterpieces Of Fifty Centuries." Leonard Bernstein, Walter Piston, William Schuman, and Virgil Thomson also composed pieces for the Museum's Centennial exhibitions.

Later Years

From the 1960s, Copland turned increasingly to conducting. Though not enamored with the prospect, he found himself without new ideas for composition, saying, "It was exactly as if someone had simply turned off a faucet." He became a frequent guest conductor in the United States and the United Kingdom and made a series of recordings of his music, primarily for Columbia Records. In 1960, RCA Victor released Copland's recordings with the Boston Symphony Orchestra of the orchestral suites from Appalachian Spring and The Tender Land; these recordings were later reissued on CD, as were most of Copland's Columbia recordings (by Sony).

From 1960 to his death, Copland resided at Cortlandt Manor, New York. Known as Rock Hill, his home was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003 and further designated a National Historic Landmark in 2008. Copland's health deteriorated through the 1980s, and he died of Alzheimer's disease and respiratory failure on December 2, 1990, in North Tarrytown, New York (now Sleepy Hollow) and his ashes were scattered over the Tanglewood Music Center near Lenox, Massachusetts. Much of his large estate was bequeathed to the creation of the Aaron Copland Fund for Composers, which bestows over $600,000 per year to performing groups.

Personal Life

Copland never enrolled as a member of any political party. Nevertheless, he inherited a considerable interest in civic and world events from his father. His views were generally progressive and he had strong ties with numerous colleagues and friends in the Popular Front, including Odets. Early in his life, Copland developed, in Pollack's words, "a deep admiration for the works of Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser and Upton Sinclair, all socialists whose novels passionately excoriated capitalism's physical and emotional toll on the average man." Even after the McCarthy hearings, he remained a committed opponent of militarism and the Cold War, which he regarded as having been instigated by the United States. He condemned it as "almost worse for art than the real thing." Throw the artist "into a mood of suspicion, ill-will, and dread that typifies the cold war attitude and he'll create nothing."

While Copland had various encounters with organized religious thought, which influenced some of his early compositions, and was close with the Zionist movement during the Popular Front movement, when it was endorsed by the left, he personally remained an agnostic. Pollack writes: "Like many contemporaries, Copland regarded Judaism alternately in terms of religion, culture, and race; but he showed relatively little involvement in any aspect of his Jewish heritage.... At the same time, he had ties to Christianity, identifying with such profoundly Christian writers as Gerard Manley Hopkins and often spending Christmas Day at home with a special dinner with close friends.... In general, his music seemed to evoke Protestant hymns as often as it did Jewish chant....Copland characteristically found connections among various religious traditions.... But if Copland was discreet about his Jewish background, he never hid it, either."

Pollack states that Copland was gay and that the composer came to an early acceptance and understanding of his sexuality. Like many at that time, Copland guarded his privacy, especially in regard to his homosexuality. He provided few written details about his private life.

Recent Additions

Michael Veazey conducts Copland: Appalachian Spring (Excerpt) played by the Kammerphilharmonie Graz

Michael Veazey conducts Copland: Appalachian Spring (Excerpt) played by the Kammerphilharmonie Graz

Aaron Copland. The Red Pony. Dream March and Circus Music. New Philharmonia

Aaron Copland. The Red Pony. Dream March and Circus Music. New Philharmonia

Aaron Copland- Appalachian Spring part 7 Doppio movimento: Variations on a shaker theme(1 of 2)

Aaron Copland- Appalachian Spring part 7 Doppio movimento: Variations on a shaker theme(1 of 2)

Burak Besir playing   (Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland)  Kennedy Center Washington DC

Burak Besir playing (Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland) Kennedy Center Washington DC

Note: This page includes sections of revised and reformatted content from Wikipedia.org.